Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Electrical engineering student Lindsey Goodnight has always known she wanted to contribute to the medical field. Now, with the help of a 2019 Erickson Discovery Grant, she is on her way to conducting research that will do just that. 

The Erikson Discovery Grant Program was established to support undergraduate students during the summer as they pursue original projects under the mentorship of a faculty member. The program was named in honor of the University’s 17th president. The grant provides each recipient with funding of $3,500 to support the student’s summer research. Goodnight was selected as one of 72 recipients of the grant from a pool of over 200 applicants from across all Penn State campuses. 

“Lindsey is very hardworking and reliable,” said Aida Ebrahimi, assistant professor of electrical engineering and Goodnight’s faculty adviser. “She has that attitude to not be afraid of exploring different areas that are not immediately in her comfort zone. She’s on the right path to becoming a successful researcher.”

Goodnight, who is a Schreyer Honors College student participating in the integrated undergraduate/graduate (IUG) program, just finished her third year as an undergraduate and plans to receive her master’s degree in 2020. Her summer research project is focused on finding new ways to determine if antibiotics are working on bacterial pathogens by creating sensors to monitor cell metabolism.

“In recent years, there has been a serious issue in health care where bacterial pathogens develop resistance against antibiotic treatment,” Goodnight said. 

Resistant cells keep metabolizing even in the presence of a high concentration of antibiotics. 

“When a cell metabolizes, it gives electrons to a compound in the environment; for example, under aerobic growth, bacteria like E. coli give the electrons to oxygen,” Goodnight explained. “We’re working on creating a novel material structure that can accept the electrons instead. I am looking into different types of materials to sense if the cell is living or not.”

A sensor could quickly test how well a cell is metabolizing, which determines if the antibiotics have worked on the pathogen or not.

“This research would develop a faster way of checking if antibiotics are effective for a particular type of bacterial strain,” Goodnight said. 

As a child, Goodnight wanted to be a doctor one day, but after realizing the discomforting feeling of seeing other people ill or in pain, she ruled out medical professions. She was still interested in contributing to the medical field, however. Her vision for her future work solidified after an experience she had in high school as a result of getting kidney stones.

“When I was in the hospital, I saw an ultrasound machine, and it looked like it came straight out of the 90s or 80s,” Goodnight said. “It was that really ugly beige with that really clunky computer screen. I thought, there has to be a better way to do that. I chose electrical engineering with the thought that I’d get to work on such machines.”

Goodnight said that initially, she wasn’t aware that the biosensor research she currently is working on existed.

“As I got into college and I started looking around more for the types of medical applications for electrical engineering, I found this research topic in Dr. Ebrahimi’s group,” Goodnight said. “I got hooked because it was such a cool and unique application of electrical engineering that went directly into the biomedical aspects as well.” 

After she receives her master’s degree, Goodnight plans to continue with research, either through private industry or a doctorate program.