Research leads to awards, scholarship funding for grad students in chemistry

April 28, 2016 by Greg Katski

Two graduate students in chemistry were rewarded for their hard work and research with the first-ever Pinsheng CS3M Awards for Analytical and Bioanalytical Research.

Yongbo Dan and Abdurazag Swesi, both research assistants and Ph.D. candidates in chemistry, were awarded $500 scholarships made possible by alumnus Dr. Xiaoliang (Sean) Cheng.

Cheng, who received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Missouri S&T in 2010, founded the scholarship, which will be awarded every year to two chemistry or biology students who partner with faculty on research conducted in the Center for Single Nanoparticle, Single Cell and Single Molecule Monitoring (CS3M) at S&T. The scholarship is designed to support students in biotechnology and to thank Cheng’s mentor, Dr. Yinfa Ma.

“He is an amazing scientist and business leader,” Ma said of Cheng during the awards ceremony. Ma, Curators’ Teaching Professor of chemistry and associate dean of research for the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business, was Cheng’s research advisor at S&T.  A self-described serial entrepreneur, Cheng’s latest venture is QL Tech, a microbial bioreactor company he co-founded in 2013.

Yongbo Dan (far right), poses with his research advisor, Dr. Honglan Shi (center), associate research professor of chemistry, and alumnus Dr. Xiaoliang (Sean) Cheng, who founded the Pinsheng CS3M Award.

Abdurazag Swesi (center), poses with his research advisor, Dr. Manashi Nath (left), associate professor of chemistry, and Cheng.

Dan and Swesi beat out a number of applicants for the award. Dr. Stephen Roberts, vice provost and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Business, remarked that they were more than deserving of the accolades. “I’m thrilled by our graduate students, and the impactful work they’re doing here,” he said.

Dan was recognized for developing a process to analyze nanoparticles in edible plants that could lead to a better understanding of how such particles may enter the human body. “The novel enzymatic extraction of nanoparticles from plants will play an important role in the near future in regard to food safety and nanoparticle uptake and biotransformation by plants,” according to Ma, who also serves as CS3M director.

Dan’s experiment, the results of which were published in Environmental Science & Technology, used a method he developed of enzymatic digestion, followed by single-particle inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry analysis, to determine the size, distribution, particle concentration and dissolved gold concentration in tomato plant tissues after the plant digested gold nanoparticles. “The dosing study indicated that tomato can uptake (gold nanoparticles) as intact particles without alternating the properties of the (gold nanoparticles),” according to the study’s abstract.

“Plant uptake and accumulation of nanoparticles represent an important pathway for potential human (exposure) to nanoparticles. Consequently, it is imperative to understand the uptake of accumulation of nanoparticles in plant tissues and their unique physical and chemical properties within plant tissues,” Dan writes.

According to an article in Scientific American titled “Do Nanoparticles in Food Pose a Health Risk?” hundreds of food or food-related products contain nanoparticles without having undergone safety testing by government agencies. A 2005 study in Environmental Science & Technology showed that zinc oxide nanoparticles were toxic to human lung cells in lab tests even at low concentrations.

Swesi was recognized for discovering a catalyst – nickel subselenide – that can produce oxygen and hydrogen from water at a very low overpotential. The nickel subselenide outperforms some of the best oxide-based catalysts known to date. “Working in the very highly competitive research area of producing hydrogen and oxygen from water using electrocatalysts, (Swesi) was able to publish his work in Energy and Environmental Science, a highly ranked peer-reviewed journal for energy-related research with an impact factor of 20.523,” said Ma.

Producing oxygen and hydrogen from water, also known as electrolysis or “water splitting,” happens when an electric current is passed through water. Electrolysis can be used to power gas-reliant machines, such as automobiles, but requires large amounts of energy.