Nanoscience students will showcase novel DNA sensor at Harvard

Undergraduate team to take part in an international biomolecular design competition
From left, Max Anikovskiy, instructor, Department of Chemistry Instructor and undergraduate students Tyler Chudiak and Vladimir Kabanov. They will be travelling to BIOMOD, the annual international biomolecular design competition at Harvard University.

From left, Max Anikovskiy, instructor, and undergraduate students Tyler Chudiak and Vladimir Kabanov

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

For a second year in a row, the University of Calgary is sending a team of talented nanoscience students from the Faculty of Science to compete in Harvard University’s BIOMOD competition on Oct. 31.

BIOMOD is an annual international biomolecular design competition where undergraduate teams showcase unique things using the molecules of life. Previous contest winners have used DNA, ribonucleic acid and proteins as building blocks to create autonomous robots, molecular computers and prototypes for nanoscale therapeutics.

At the competition, the University of Calgary’s Tyler James Chudiak ’16, Vladimir Kabanov ‘16, and Raunak Singh ’17 will face off against 36 teams from around the globe. The trio will present their novel nano-biosensor, which is able to identify DNA bases by interpreting a unique binary code. This methodology may be very useful in detecting single point DNA mutations.

Sensor directly detects DNA at physiological concentration 

“Many DNA biosensors have been developed to date, however a common problem among these sensors is practicality,” says Chudiak who is completing a major in biology and a minor in economics.

“Our sensor is designed in a way that allows direct detection of DNA at the physiological concentrations seen in human blood samples — thereby omitting the prevailing costly and time-consuming techniques,” he says. Chudiak will enrol in dental school next year.

The team worked all summer to complete the required BIOMOD competition components, which consists of a nanoscience project supported by a video, a web page and a presentation.

Real-life applications includes improving genetic diagnostics

“Besides acquiring several spectroscopic techniques and working with a number of unique instruments, this project has been key in growing my ability to plan ahead and set milestones,” says Kabanov, who is originally from Kazakhstan. He will be majoring in chemistry with a minor in nanoscience. “I’ve found that it is much easier and more rewarding when you approach a large project one step at a time."

For Singh, the highlight of the project has been knowing the group’s work has real-life applications.

“By simplifying the interpretation of genetic diagnostics, we’ve aimed to improve early and reliable detection of DNA point mutations,” says Singh. He is a chemistry major who is also pursuing a minor in pure mathematics. “I’m eager to present these findings and hope the crowd will appreciate our presentation.”

Chemistry instructor highlights value of hands-on science

The team’s work was guided by instructor Max Anikovskiy in the Department of Chemistry.

“BIOMOD is a great way for ambitious students to gain outstanding hands-on science experience above and beyond their standard course work,” says Anikovskiy. He also supervised last year’s University of Calgary BIOMOD competition team which finished sixth overall and earned a gold level mention.

“Although we want to do well and improve on last year’s good result, to me, a successful showing would mean representing the University of Calgary with pride and having students recognize the value of their learning journey — from scoping out their research to working tirelessly on their project and all the way to taking part in the competition,” says Anikovskiy.

The students’ project was made possible thanks to support from the nanoscience program at the University of Calgary, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, and PURE Awards for summer studentship.