Colour-coded nanotechnology solutions

Dr Rona Chandrawati discusses nanotechnology sensors for monitoring and improving health, why she decided to join UNSW Chemical Engineering, and her passion for science communication.

Instead of a use by date on food packaging, imagine the simplicity of a little sticker that turns from blue to red when the food is no longer safe to be consumed. Or if early stage cancer or cardiovascular disease could be detected by a simple colourimetric test kit following a routine blood or urine test.Dr Rona Chandrawati

This is exactly the end-product Scientia Fellow Dr Rona Chandrawati has in mind for her research which is primarily focused on developing nanotechnology sensors with colourimetric detection, particularly in the areas of food and health.

“If you think about how quick and easy a urine-based pregnancy test is, that’s the type of tool my research team is hoping to develop for a range of health issues, with early detection being the key,” she says. “If we can detect disease early, then there is a higher chance of it being treated effectively.”

In terms of food, Chandrawati says the use by date system may be imprecise and how long the food lasts depends on storage conditions, how long it took to get from producer to the supermarket, and whether the packaging has been opened or not etc.

“I think a lot of the time we throw away food that is still safe to be consumed, or unfortunately eat food that has already been contaminated. We are particularly interested in using colour metrics, because this is something that can be easily understood by consumers at home,” she continues.

In addition to food and health, Chandrawati says the environment is another area where her technology might have interesting applications. “I’m collaborating with the University of Sydney Institute of Agriculture to explore colorimetric tests to monitor ammonia and nitrogen fixation in plants. I can also foresee, for example, our research being used to detect and trace heavy metals in rivers,” she says.

Chandrawati recently relocated her Nanotechnology for Food and Medicine Laboratory to UNSW Chemical Engineering, and says she was attracted to working at UNSW because of the Faculty’s reputation, world-class facilities and multidisciplinary centres.

UNSW is the powerhouse of engineering research in Australia and the facilities and research environment here are top notch.

Dr Rona Chandrawati, Scientia Fellow and Senior Lecturer, UNSW Chemical Engineering

“UNSW is the powerhouse of engineering research in Australia and the facilities and research environment here are top notch. There is also a fantastic range of disciplines so I’m hoping to open up collaborations across different areas,” she says.

“I think our work on colourimetric detection for food contamination, for example, is unique and highly complementary and can positively contribute to one of the many existing strengths of the School.”

Not content with working to improve our food, health and environment, Chandrawati, who was honoured in 2018 as one of the world’s 50 Extraordinary Scientists under 40 by the World Economic Forum, is also passionate about science communication. She has been involved in the global science festival Pint of Science and the Australian-based Fresh Science competition which are both forums for scientists to share their stories of discovery for a lay audience.

“I think the more scientists can communicate their work to the public the better. Also, as researchers, we stand to gain a lot from talking with different people and gathering perspectives,” she says.

“After my talk for Pint of Science last year a guy came up to me and said, ‘You should embed your colorimetric sensors on hospital walls to detect whether there is a lot of bacteria or not,’ which is a really interesting idea.”

UNSW Chemical Engineering has a number of school outreach programs that Chandrawati is keen to get involved in too. “I am really looking forward to helping inspire high school students about engineering technology and what it can do,” she says.

 

Researcher profile: Dr Rona Chandrawati
Dr Chandrawati's research is interdisciplinary in nature, exploring the interface between bionanotechnology, bioengineering, cell biology, chemistry, and materials science. Over the last five years, Dr Chandrawati has successfully attracted over AUD$1M in competitive funding as a Lead Chief Investigator and has published in high impact journals including Science, Advanced Materials, Advanced Science, Nano Letter and ACS Nano. Her expertise covers:

•    Nanoparticle sensors
•    Biosensors
•    Early disease diagnosis
•    Food and health monitoring
•    Drug delivery
•    Biomaterials
•    Cell-material interactions
•    Bioconjugation and surface chemistry

If you are interested in contacting Dr Chandrawati to discuss a project, please email her at: rona.chandrawati@unsw.edu.au

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