How this young chemist is changing diagnostics with a spool of thread

24 Feb 2021

Image: Devin Swiner

Devin Swiner’s research focuses on using cellulose materials such as cotton thread for applications in clinical diagnostics.

Devin Swiner is a promising young analytical chemist who was named 2020 Next Generation Innovator of the Year as part of the annual Research and Innovation Showcase at Ohio State University.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, Swiner said she always liked science. “When I was little, I knew I wanted to be some kind of scientist, think anything from an astronomer to a surgeon to a forensic chemist. I fell in love with chemistry in high school. I liked doing experiments and it was a subject that just made sense to me so everyone assumed that’s what I would study in college.”

Swiner went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016 before heading to Ohio State University for graduate school. “I’m currently in my final semester of my PhD programme in analytical chemistry and am starting a job at Merck this summer,” she said.

I tell everyone that the reason I like chemistry so much is because it’s like a puzzle. Each experiment you do is one piece so the more you do, the more of the picture you can uncover.”

Swiner’s research is focused on developing a new ionisation source for mass spectrometry using cellulose materials for applications in clinical diagnostics.

My source uses spooled cotton thread, that you buy at the store, and I’ve been able to do high-level chemistry with it. Some of the applications I’ve worked on are drug screening, ricin detection and disease biomarker detection. I’ve enjoyed using my grad school years to develop something new for my field that could eventually be automated.”

Her research led her to a collaboration with the Children’s Nationwide Hospital in Ohio, which was the work that led her to win the Innovator of the Year Award.

“This project may be my favourite,” she said. “We’re in the process of developing a skin patch made of threads and adhesives to detect cystic fibrosis biomarkers in sweat.”

This type of sampling could be revolutionary when screening for diseases in newborn babies, where it is difficult to get larger biological fluid samples for testing.

“The goal is to monitor key metabolites that are indicative of pulmonary exacerbations with the patches so treatment can be administered before they occur. I think it’s really cool we can do this with something as simple as a piece of thread,” said Swiner.

Outside of her research, mentorship and advocacy is extremely important to Swiner. She is one of the co-founders of the Twitter campaign #BlackInChem and noted similar movements as one of the amazing things that has come out of 2020.

“I would love to see more established STEM organisations supporting our movements and helping us develop professionally,” she said.

“Black and non-black people of colour, as well as those that are disabled and those in the LGBTQ+ community, have very unique challenges that we face. I would love to see organisations working towards effective change to remove the barriers that keep us from pursuing and/or staying in STEM.”

‘You want to make sure you give yourself the grace and space to grow as a person and as scientist’
– DEVIN SWINER

Speaking about her own challenges, Swiner said that getting to graduate school was harder than she thought it would be.

“I had no idea what I was doing, or what it meant to have a PhD, so I was not as prepared as I would’ve been if I had guidance earlier on in my academic career,” she said.

“I didn’t know getting a PhD was a viable option for me or what I wanted to do. No one told me having research experience was important or how to go about finding people to write my letters of recommendation, so I was scrambling during the spring of my junior year at [University of Pittsburg] to get my ducks in a row. It all worked out in the end, and I’m where I’m supposed to be now, but it was definitely challenging getting to this point.”

Swiner said if she could give one piece of advice to budding scientists, it would be that it’s OK to pivot. “I wanted to get my master’s in forensic chemistry and now I’m about to graduate with my PhD in analytical chemistry to start at job at Merck. My plans changed drastically and that is 100pc OK, and honestly to be expected,” she said.

“Sometimes things don’t work out how you planned them, or you change your mind on what your long-term goals are. Both are valid and you want to make sure you give yourself the grace and space to grow as a person and as scientist.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com