Beckman scholar Harry Dang

Award funds study of sensors that detect disease, drugs, and explosives

March 22, 2021

Research & Innovation

Sophomore Harry Dang of Saigon, Vietnam, has received a prestigious Beckman Foundation Scholarship to research the development of cost-effective and portable sensors used by law enforcement, health professionals, and consumers to screen for explosives, drugs, and disease.

Dang is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and minoring in mathematics and physics. Under the mentorship of chemistry professor Mike Leopold, Dang’s undergraduate research focuses on developing sensors that can identify a class of explosives, called non-aromatic, which are difficult to detect.

“Aromatic explosives, such as TNT, are relatively more volatile and exhibit distinct chemical properties that can easily be captured and analyzed by existing instruments,” Dang said. “Non-aromatic explosives, however, lack these properties and thus are hard to detect.”

Dang’s research aims to develop sensors containing synthetic molecules that will interact with a target molecule, serving to warn that an explosive is present.

“As terrorists increasingly switch from aromatic explosives to harder-to-detect non-aromatic materials for improvised explosive devices, it is imperative to develop field portable sensors for these compounds to assist law enforcement, counter-terrorism efforts, and military operations in combat zones,” Leopold said.

Dang’s research also aims to develop sensors that indicate the presence of disease, and potentially, the severity of it.

“Many diseases have biochemical indicators, which are particular molecules produced by our bodies at abnormal amounts in response to these diseases,” he said. “These indicators can be detected by biomedical devices and lab tests and subsequently used for diagnosis.”

Dang’s scholarship is part of a larger award to the University of Richmond from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which supports student research in the sciences. Dang said the award also will allow him to attend and present at conferences where he expects to find inspiration for new research directions in his lab.

“This award solidifies my commitment and dedication to research,” Dang said. “The Beckman Foundation Scholarship will allow our group to expand the scope of our research.”