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Doane Students Among Finalists in National Inventors Competition

Last spring, Dr. Andrea Holmes sorted through a box of materials left by a retiring chemistry professor.

A large poster advertising a national collegiate inventors competition caught her eye.

Holmes, assistant professor of chemistry at Doane, urged chemistry students Liz Higgins and Kari Thompson to apply.

The pair was immersed in research seeking to create a personal testing kit to screen drinks for the drug flunitrazepam, sometimes used in date rape. The research already had resulted in a chemical sensor that detects flunitrazepam in liquid.

Reasons not to enter were easy to find.

The deadline was close and it would take about 40 hours to complete the application.

And a list of past winners was dominated by Ivy League schools and big universities - intimidating names for two undergraduate students from a small private liberal arts and sciences college in Nebraska.

"I told them it doesn't matter where the research is done as long as it's good research," said Holmes, their research adviser.

Good advice.

The pair learned recently that they are among the finalists in the 2006 Collegiate Inventors Competition. Eleven teams (totaling 14 students) were selected. Four teams are undergraduate students.

The national competition, open to undergraduate and graduate students, is operated by the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation and sponsored by the Abbott Fund and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Finalists receive an all-expense paid trip to Washington D.C., to defend their research in the final round of judging and participate in the Oct. 19 awards ceremony and reception. Three winners will be selected: an undergraduate winner will receive $10,000, one graduate winner will receive $15,000, and a grand prize winner will receive $25,000. Academic advisers of the winning entries will receive $3,000 each.

"The awards usually go to big names - like Stanford, Cornell, Harvard, MIT," Holmes said. "So (the finalist selection) is huge for the students and for Doane. They did the research. They did the work. This is all them and they are deserving." 

Both juniors this fall, Thompson, of Milburn, is an education major with a chemistry endorsement. Higgins, of Lincoln, is a chemistry major .  Representatives reached Thompson on her cell phone to share the good news. They are still trying to get word to Higgins, who is studying abroad through Doane's Semester in Africa program.

Thompson said she was honored to be chosen as a researcher on the project.

"As a woman, I was especially attracted to this research since women are the usual targets of date-rape drugs."

The call announcing Doane as a finalist came as a shock, she said. "After it finally sunk in, I interrupted Dr. Holmes' organic chemistry lab to tell her the news."

Both students knew they had a good chance to be selected as finalists, after lengthy phone interviews with a representative of the National Inventors Hall of Fame a few weeks ago. The competition promotes exploration in invention, science, engineering, technology and other creative endeavors. Entries are judged "on the originality and inventiveness of the new idea, process, or technology. The entry must be complete, workable, and well articulated. Entries are also judged on their potential value to society..."

In 2004, Stanford University won for inventing an improved type of Atomic Force Microscope capable of taking pictures of individual atoms. Northwestern University won for research on "bio barcode amplified detection systems," a process that can find miniscule amounts of microscopic biological materials

Holmes and her students have completed one year of research to create a sensor and personal testing kit - similar to a pH test strip - that one could carry to screen drinks for flunitrazepam, an illegal drug also known as "roofies."

The next step is to apply the results of the chemical sensor to paper surfaces. A product that women could carry is still a few years away, but the researchers hope someday it could help prevent sexual assaults and aid in criminal investigation and testing.

Holmes is overwhelmed at the amount of attention the project has drawn. It began simply as an idea for meaningful undergraduate research. It recently drew national media attention, from the Washington Post, to Fox News and USA Today. The researchers heard from numerous victims, criminal investigators, lawyers and parents of college students. They've even received donations from people wanting to support their work.

"I can't believe the dimension this has taken on," Holmes said.