Engineers Fight Toxic Bacteria

Engineers Fight Toxic Bacteria
Jessica Hussein, a
chemical engineering
student, researches how
aerogels can be used to
kill bacteria.

Welcome to the world of health-related research at Cal Poly Pomona, where teacher-scholars guide students through extraordinary hands-on learning experiences. Their to-do list is daunting but exhilarating: disabling harmful bacteria, using stem cells to study side effects of drugs, simplifying the management of diabetes, understanding the causes of epilepsy. One experiment at a time, they add to the knowledge base of the academic community, never overstate their findings and are always excited by the possibilities. This is the first in a series of articles about health-related research at Cal Poly Pomona.

Since she was a college freshman, Chemical Engineering Professor Winny Dong has studied aerogels–extremely fragile, light as air and practically transparent. Made from silicon oxide and magnesium oxide, these compounds hold enormous potential in health and safety applications. Through the years, Dong's enthusiasm for the subject has grown, especially as she uncovers the many possibilities for the use of aerogels, from killing bacteria to improving drug delivery to advancing research in space.

“Regardless of the result, it's always a good learning process,” Dong says. “This is exploratory. We have some general goals that we want to reach, but we don't know how to get there. Students have to design the experiments and see what works and what doesn't.”

For one of her aerogel research projects, Dong collaborates with Biological Sciences Professor Wei-Jen Lin to study the antibacterial properties of magnesium oxide. They've partnered with Jet Propulsion Laboratory to synthesize an aerogel film that covers spacecraft and can prevent microbial contamination when it travels between Earth and Mars. This summer, JPL will sponsor a student intern to study how the aerogel can be molded and to gauge its effectiveness in killing bacterial spores. Using ultra-powerful microscopes at JPL, researchers can see the before-and-after changes when bacteria come into contact with the aerogel.

Dong is also interested in earthly applications of aerogels, such as using them to eliminate e-coli or salmonella bacteria. Because it is safe to eat, she believes it could be used by the food industry in building food containers or mixed in with food to prevent bacteria growth in milk products, deli meats, beef and sausage.

Chemical engineering junior Jessica Hussein, says she's excited about working with a material that has so much potential. As Dong's research assistant, Hussein's job is to learn how the aerogel kills bacteria, especially e-coli, and its effectiveness.

“We know it works, but we don't have all the numbers and percentages yet,” Hussein says. “If we can find and make a product that's nontoxic that fighting Toxic Bacteria you can put in food and prevent food poisoning, it would be great for society.”

Anna Zelaya, a microbiology senior under Lin's supervision, studies how deadly spores, such as anthrax and botulism, react to the magnesium oxide aerogels. Although she admits that finding a treatment for a deadly bacteria is a faroff goal–one that might take a lifetime of research–it's also important and exciting.

“When I think about those possibilities, I can't believe that I'm working on this project and that I could potentially be working on a cure for anthrax,” she says.