Students Take Invention to Washington D.C.
It took a visit to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for Kari Thompson to fully understand the gravity of the research that took place at Doane College last summer.
Her team's work to create a new chemical sensor and personal testing kit to detect the drug flunitrazepam - sometimes used in date rape - had drawn national media attention months before.
It had earned Doane a finalist spot in the prestigious National Collegiate Inventors Competition and this trip to Washington, D.C.
But now, Thompson was shaking the hand of the doctor who invented the Fogarty ® balloon embolectomy catheter.
She was answering questions from the research physicist whose work shaped the world's fiber optics revolution; rubbing elbows with a co-inventor of the electret microphone found in cell phones and medical devices - all judges of the collegiate inventors contest.
It finally hit home that her team's research had implications beyond Doane, Crete, Nebraska, and even the United States.
"Date rape drugs are present in college life. This experience made it real to me - that I have the power to do something about it," Thompson said.
In the end, the competition's top prizes went to a University of Oklahoma student who invented a new way of forecasting weather and a Johns Hopkins student who worked with anti-adherent compounds for contact lenses.
But for Thompson and Doane, being a finalist in the competition itself was a win, establishing connections and setting a precedent for future projects.
The competition capped a whirlwind six months for the Doane team, led by Dr. Andrea Holmes, assistant professor of chemistry. In May, Holmes selected Thompson of Milburn, a junior education major with a chemistry endorsement, and Liz Higgins of Lincoln, a junior chemistry major, to conduct research on a topic she had planned since her days as a graduate student at New York University.
Holmes had visited NYU's student health center with a cold. Among the informational pamphlets at the center was one that warned students - particularly young women - about the use of flunitrazepam, also known as roofies, a drug with powerful sedative properties sometimes used in date rape.
She thought to herself, "This is what research should be, to figure out ways that crimes like this could be prevented."
In Doane's laboratory in the Lied Science and Mathematics Building, Holmes and the students designed an experiment that uses DNA aptamers and visible dyes to detect the presence of the drug.
A Nebraska EPSCOR grant funded through the National Science Foundation and a Project SEED grant from the American Chemical Society paid research stipends to the Doane students as well as Crete High school senior Ana Castaneda.
The research uses a different approach than current formulas to detect flunitrazapam, which are based on immunoassays, Holmes said.
Her method is more stable, easily accessible and inexpensive.
By the end of the summer, the students' research had resulted in a chemical sensor that detects flunitrazepam in liquid, a big step toward the goal of applying a sensor to paper - similar to a pH test strip - that one could carry to screen drinks.
News of their success spread nationwide. After an August Lincoln Journal Star feature on the research, The Associated Press distributed the story to hundreds of media outlets, from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times, Fox News, CNN, and USA Today. It reappeared nationwide in Web site and media sites for science, health, psychology, feminists and substance abuse sectors. Holmes and her students were interviewed for numerous California-based radio programs.
The group heard from lawyers, detectives, parents, victims and media across the nation. Some sought expert opinions for rape cases; others wanted information to protect daughters preparing to leave for college.
Still others just wanted to say, "Thanks, this research is important."
One of the most important calls came from Bloomsbury Innovations, a London-based drug company that owns Drink Detective, a product the size of a raffle ticket that can be used to detect spiked drinks. Eventually, Holmes said, their sensor will replace one of the strips in Drink Detective.
Bloomsbury is filing a patent for the sensor. Holmes and her students will be the inventors.
There was more excitement yet to come. At Holmes' urging, Thompson and Higgins had entered the National Collegiate Inventors Competition. Not entering was tempting, Thompson recalled. The deadline was close and the application long. And a list of past winners was dominated by Ivy League schools and big universities, not small private liberal arts and sciences colleges in Nebraska.
Holmes told them, "It doesn't matter where the research is done as long as it's good research."
She was right.
In September, they learned Doane was among eleven teams of finalists in the 2006 competition. 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 received 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. Award winners received up to $25,000.
Thompson represented Doane. Higgins, who is studying abroad through Doane's Semester in Africa program, was unable to attend.
The project continues to draw academic and media interest, even without a win at the national competition.
Holmes and Thompson sat down recently for an interview with NET Radio, Nebraska's Public Radio Network.
"Will this work and will people use it?" the reporter asked.
"People won't test every drink they ever order," Thompson replied, "but that's not the purpose of the test. The purpose is to create an environment that makes drink spikers think twice."
Holmes hopes someday the sensor could help prevent sexual assaults and aid in criminal investigation and testing. Flunitrazepam's effects include amnesia; individuals are unable to remember events while under the influence of the drug, which is several times stronger than Valium.
How soon the research translates to a market product depends on funding and the number of people working on it.
Attending the national competition was a boost to their project, according to Thompson.
In addition to being surrounded by some of the world's best inventors, she had a chance to meet "phenomenal student researchers" like the Johns Hopkins student who already had accumulated three patents.
"I'll never forget her reaction the night the winner was announced," Thompson said. "It was so true and genuine and she was overcome with emotion."
Thompson said she also left the competition with the knowledge that quality work can compete anywhere and that success takes work.
"I realized how many times scientists fail before they find success and the motivation it takes to push through failure."
She considers this a building point, rather than a peak, for Doane.
"I really hope this success continues."