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College of Science and Mathematics

Enhancing lives through learning, discovery and innovation

Physics professor Colleen Marlow receives the prestigious Marsden Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand

Marlow ColleenCal Poly Physics professor Colleen Marlow and her Kiwi collaborators received the prestigious Marsden Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand. The team will receive more than $680,000 to support ongoing research that may contribute to the advancement of medical diagnostics, such as hormone-level detection.

“This is a great opportunity for my students to work as part of an international collaboration, and it will significantly further our research in the physics of complex nanoelectronic networks,” said Marlow, who is working with an international team of scientists that includes Professor Natalie Plank from the Victoria University of Wellington and Professor Charles Peter Unsworth from the University of Auckland, both located in New Zealand.

Marlow Colleen and student on computerIf successful, the work may represent an advancement in biosensors commonly used for routine medical diagnostics. A biosensor is a device that converts a biological response into an electrical signal. These signals can then be used to measure a wide range of naturally occurring chemical substances.

Currently biosensors lack sensitivity and need large samples — such as a blood sample — to measure the chemicals present in the human body. The presence or absence of these chemicals gives doctors important information about a patient’s health.

With the advances that Marlow and her team are working on, biosensors may be able to use samples as small as a drop of blood for detecting molecules. The wait time in processing samples may also be removed, giving patients test results in real time. These changes could add up to a lower cost for a variety of medical tests.

“The cool thing about our research is that we can actually sense individual molecules,” Marlow said. “We­ hope to develop a sensor that can detect any molecule we’re interested in.”

Marlow's technique is based on measuring the complex electrical sensitivity of carbon nanotube networks. A carbon nanotube is a tube-shaped carbon crystal structure with a diameter about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair and unique electrical properties.

Erica Happe using a device“What we are able to do in the lab at Cal Poly is to essentially change the energy of the electrons in the nanotube networks. By changing the local electrical properties, we hope to find the most sensitive areas of carbon nanotube networks to optimize a sensor design,” said Marlow.

The Marsden Award will not only provide funding for continued fabrication of carbon nanotube network devices but also strengthen Marlow’s collaboration efforts with Plank in New Zealand.

The Marsden Award is given by the Royal Society of New Zealand, a research-focused not-for-profit membership organization that supports advancements in research that can contribute to solving contemporary challenges. A portion of the funding is used to support a doctoral student , Cal Poly graduate Erica Happe (B.S. Physics June 2018), who will work side by side with Marlow’s undergraduate researchers for the next three summers.

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