Round two of Discovery Fund will support research by Fout, Lu, and Rodríguez-López


The Discovery Fund, established in 2018 and supported by a generous gift from chemistry alumni Ving Lee (Ph.D., ‘75, Rinehart) and May Lee (Ph.D., ‘76, Rinehart), provides funding for innovative research in the Department of Chemistry.

“In the face of dwindling resources from campus, our faculty need this to start daring new research projects not quite ready for NSF, NIH or similar funding,” says department head, Martin Gruebele.

The fall 2019 round of funding will support research on enhanced MRI sensitivity (Prof. Alison Fout), genetic engineering (Prof. Yi Lu), and improved environmental pollutant monitoring (Prof. Joaquín Rodríguez-López).

Enhancing MRI sensitivity (Alison Fout)

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a common, noninvasive technique that utilizes a powerful magnetic field to image the body’s internal structures. Current MRI procedures can last from fifteen minutes to an hour, with image resolution playing a key role in that time difference and in the diagnostic outcome.

Currently, gadolinium-based contrast agents (GBCAs) are used to improve image quality by altering the magnetic properties of nearby water molecules. But GBCAs have drawbacks in their imaging strength and chemical stability. A possible alternative is a form of hydrogen known as parahydrogen, which increases signal intensity, enables real-time metabolic imaging, is ultra-fast, and has the potential to be a low-cost technique.

This could have a significant impact on future diagnoses. Unfortunately, as Fout explains, there is a scarcity of available parahydrogen catalysts and contrasts agent to use with MRI. Her project will focus on developing appropriate catalysts and contrast agents—which will hold great promise for imaging diseases such as cancer, emphysema, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and others.

Developing novel genetic tools using catalytic DNA molecules (Yi Lu)

Genetic tools such as gene cloning and modification are powerful in our fundamental understanding of biology and developing new therapy for diseases. While most research efforts focus on using protein enzymes to achieve these goals, the Lu group plans to employ catalytic DNA molecules or DNAzymes—DNA molecules with catalytic or enzymatic activities.

As Lu explains, in addition to being lower cost and having higher stability than protein enzymes, the DNAzyme-based genetic tool he plans to develop will be far more precise in gene sequence cloning and modification, making it possible for more personalized diagnostics and treatment.   

Better monitoring of suspended particulate matter (Joaquín Rodríguez-López)

Suspended particulate matter (PM) with diameters of less than 10 micrometers and 2.5 micrometers (one 10-millionth and one 2.5-millionth of a meter, respectively) are dangerous pollutants that drastically increase the incidence of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.

These PMs are ubiquitous in large and developing urban centers—including those dear to Rodríguez-López in Mexico and elsewhere—which, he laments, “sadly drown in a thick, scattering fog.”

Better monitoring of the particles is necessary before preventative measures and health policies can be implemented, but current monitoring methods are cumbersome, complex, and expensive.

Rodríguez-López seeks to develop a new electroanalytical platform to simultaneously monitor PM size, concentration, and type, thus enabling better environmental decision making.


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