URI engineering student to fabricate biodegradable sensor

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Vanessa Kamara
Vanessa Kamara. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Kamara

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 28, 2019 — Vanessa Kamara has always had a curious mind and a thirst for knowledge.

As a biomedical engineering student at the University of Rhode Island, the junior has enjoyed learning about the many scientific disciplines involved in her major.

“Our biomedical engineering program is great because it integrates biology, chemistry, mechanics, and of course electronics,” said Kamara, who is from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. “The issue for me is, I’m just too interested in everything.”

Seeking more hands-on experience to complement what she was learning in the classroom, Kamara volunteered last spring in Assistant Professor Kunal Mankodiya’s Wearable Biosensing Laboratory.

“I realized my hands-on circuitry skills were below where I wanted them to be and the best way to learn was to just throw myself into a research project,” recalled Kamara.

Kamara worked closely with graduate student Nick Constant on insoles used for monitoring the gait of patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Having enjoyed her lab experience, Kamara took Mankodiya’s suggestion to work in his lab through a fellowship.

“I completed the course, Linear Circuit Theory, at the beginning of the summer while continuing to work with Nick,” Kamara said. “I was taught how to use an electroencephalogram (EEG), as well as the interface tools, to monitor the signals coming from people’s brains.”

“Vanessa is an eager-to-learn student who put a lot of effort into how to improve the design and capabilities of smart textile sensors,” Mankodiya said. “While working on our various projects, she quickly understood the needs and came back with a possible new design that could change the behavior of the sensor.”

While Kamara learned a great deal about sensors and circuitry in Mankodiya’s lab, the discovery that resonated with her the most was an environmentally-friendly sensor.

“I had to read countless articles to learn about material science,” Kamara said. “One of the articles mentioned a Poly-L-Lactic Acid (PLLA) sensor. The fact that a sensor could be made from biodegradable materials intrigued me.”

Polylactic acid (PLA) is an all-purpose biodegradable polymer that has the strength and formability equivalent to petroleum resins.

“I worry about the environmental damage humans continue to do to the planet,” said Kamara. “It helps when people recycle, but the recycling process requires a lot of energy, which also hurts us.”

Taking everything she learned in her biomedical engineering courses and the Wearable Biosensing Lab, coupled with her passion for protecting the environment, Kamara decided to pursue an independent research project.

She submitted a proposal titled “Poly-L-Lactic Acid Sensor Characterization via Fabrication Technique” to the URI Office of Undergraduate Research & Innovation, which agreed to fund her research.

“The goal of the project is to fabricate nano strands from lactic acid,” explained Kamara. “We can then take those strands and lay them on a piece of clothing or another substrate in such a way to create a sensor. Due to our methods of fabrication, we can orient the charged portions of the molecules so that the sensor will power itself.

“We can then connect this sensor to hardware to monitor the voltage output,” Kamara continued. “The fact that it can be utilized as a generator for itself, and possibly other creations, along with it being biodegradable, reduces the overall carbon footprint caused by many electronic devices that utilize plastic.”

While Kamara envisioned the sensor being used in wearable technology, she also considered another important possibility.

“It could potentially be used inside humans for various medical applications, such as a stent in the heart, coating for medicinal uses, or even a nano-generator,” stated Kamara.

Due to the chemical makeup of the sensors and the equipment that would be needed to conduct her experiments, Kamara approached Professor William Euler in URI’s Department of Chemistry about working in his laboratory.

“After speaking with Dr. Euler about the goal of my project and working through some chemical questions I had, we solidified a plan for the sensors,” Kamara said. “The nice part about working with this lab is that there will always be someone else present who can assist me if any issues came up.”

Kamara is well aware of how valuable this independent research project will be to her future.

“The skills I’ll gain from this project, along with the research articles I hope to get published based on my results, will go a long way toward building my resume for graduate school,” said Kamara. “Seeing the more biochemical side of biomedical engineering could also help me decide what I truly would like to pursue for my career.”