As an analytical chemist, Channing Thompson prizes selectivity and specificity. Yet as a woman who spent her childhood on a Native American reservation, she also values accessibility and inclusion.
Now, as the recent recipient of a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Thompson is directing these seemingly disparate angels of her nature toward a common purpose.
A third-year doctoral student at UNL, the chemist is working to develop an electrochemical sensor that can screen for HIV more quickly, accurately and efficiently than existing versions.
“I’m excited to create something that can be used outside the research laboratory to help people,” she said.
Thompson is investigating how to improve a design that uses bonded chains of amino acids to detect a blood-based protein associated with HIV. Her approach: add an extra amino acid sequence to keep the parade of other components in a blood sample – nucleic acids, small molecules, other proteins – from adhering to the sensor’s surface.
By pinpointing the ideal length, type and position of the additional sequence, Thompson hopes to optimize the sensor’s ability to pluck out only the protein of interest and reduce the incidence of false positives. Eventually, she said, this upgraded “lab-on-a-chip” might also allow physicians to conduct real-time screenings in remote locations with limited access to medical resources.
That potential speaks personally to Thompson, who’s no stranger to remote settings. Having attended elementary school on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation, she said her younger self could have “never imagined” earning a doctorate.
“Although there is a growing trend in the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by Native American women in science and engineering fields, it is still an astonishingly low percentage,” she said. “It is an even smaller percentage that continues on for master’s or doctoral degrees. I am proud to be in that small percentage but want to make a change in the world to increase the number of women, especially Native American women, in the field of science.”
Thompson said her post-graduate plans include bringing science-based activities to Native American youth and pursuing a faculty position at a tribal or liberal arts college. That same drive to expand educational opportunities among the underserved also helped attract her to UNL, where she researches in the lab of adviser Rebecca Lai, a Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of chemistry.
“I was inspired to work with Dr. Lai not only because she is a successful analytical chemist, but because she shares the same interest in increasing the number of female students in STEM programs,” Thompson said. “I’m confident that … working alongside her will eventually help me create my own after-school programs and outreach activities for young students.”