Chemistry prof wins Sloan Fellowship

How can tiny nanoparticles help hugely complex endeavours like medical diagnostics? Can nanoparticles help scientists figure out how enzymes work or measure which genes are “on” or “off”?

These are some of the problems that Dr. Russ Algar — an assistant professor in UBC’s department of chemistry and a recent recipient of a prestigious Sloan Fellowship — is solving through his research. He is one of the two UBC researchers who were awarded a Sloan Fellowship this year.

Every year, 126 Sloan Fellowships are awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to early-career scientists and scholars whose research addresses important issues in science, technology or economics. The award consists of $65,000 over a two-year period.

Past Sloan Fellows include Nobel laureates and Fields medalists.

In general, Algar’s work focuses on the development of luminescent materials; these materials all have the capability to light up, making biologically important molecules visible to the human eye when looking through a microscope.

For example, in a recent paper, Algar and colleagues demonstrate the ability to link older, luminescent dyes with a newer, nontraditional material. The ability to link the two materials allows detection of key molecules, like the nucleic acids that make up DNA.

Another ongoing project involves combining luminescent materials with commonly used electronics, like smartphones, to develop point-of-care diagnostic tests. This could allow medical professionals to perform tests on patients wherever the patients are, rather than forcing patients to visit medical laboratories far from home.

“A huge fraction of the healthcare costs in northern and rural Canadian communities is associated with transportation of patients to urban centres for diagnostics and treatment,” writes Algar. The hope is to lower these costs.

Algar noted that one technical challenge lies in the complexity of bringing all the parts together, from the chemicals to the smartphone interface.

Algar’s team has already begun tackling these challenges. They have shown that tiny particles can be excited by just the light of a smartphone — so it may not be too long before these new tests come to a doctor’s office or hospital near you.

For Algar, who has been passionately interested in chemistry since high school, being named a Sloan Fellow is a greatly appreciated honour.