In the late 1980s, Rosalynn Manor got her first taste of engineering in her family’s garage in Austin, Texas, holding tools while her father rebuilt a 1964 Chevy Nova.
“That was just like handing him screwdrivers or something,” she said, laughing.
As she got older, Manor took a more active role, helping him assemble and rebuild engines and cars. “Our dream thing is once I’m graduated, again, my dad and I will rebuild another car together.”
Today, with the help of Shubhra Gangopadhyay and Sheila Grant, both professors at MU, Manor is tackling a project with implications reaching far beyond her family’s garage. She is in the latter stages of developing a hand-held electronic biosensor that could be a crucial weapon in the battle against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“I needed to do a project that would eventually be able to help someone who was suffering,” Manor said.
Gangopadhyay, an electrical engineering professor and one of Manor’s two primary graduate advisors, has known her work longer than anyone. Manor followed Gangopadhyay when she left Texas Tech to build a new lab at MU — one that would enable advanced biosensor research.
“They worked very hard to keep her (at Texas Tech),” Gangopadhyay said of Manor. “She really wanted to come over here with me. She’s a very hands-on person.”
Currently, with the U.N. Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS reporting HIV infection levels that have expanded to an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide, testing and diagnosing patients for proper treatment is difficult. This is especially true in less-developed regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, Manor said.
To assess HIV infection, two tests can be run. The quicker and easier of these is a count of the specific type of white blood cells that the virus attacks, called CD4 cells. But that count does little to determine how much antiretroviral medicine is appropriate to treat the disease. The most accurate and useful method is to run a viral load test. The problem, Manor said, is that until now, such procedures have required bulky equipment, electrical generators and several days of processing.
“Right now people use big microscopes,” Gangopadhyay explained, “and we want to put that (analysis capability) on a chip.”
Manor’s device promises to make things much quicker, cheaper and smaller. It works by shining a light emitting diode, or LED, through liquid sample material, such as blood plasma, that is surrounded by a layer of Teflon. A CD4 cell receptor and a microscopic artificial co-receptor in the sample tube naturally attach themselves to either side of the HIV virus. When they do, they change the intensity of the light coming out the other end of the detector. When they don’t find the virus, the value doesn’t change. The final intensity value lets doctors know the extent of a patient’s infection and exactly what quantity of antiretroviral medication to prescribe.
“The work that Rosalynn is involved in is very critical,” said Grant, assistant professor of biological engineering, who has helped Manor make the transition into the medical world as her other primary graduate advisor. “Until a cure is found, HIV-positive people need to be able to control their viral loads through treatment and viral load testing.”
Manor, whose affinity for science is coupled with a love for travel, said she aspires to go to Africa someday to see her invention in action. She currently plans to continue her research beyond graduation, whether it will be at a private firm, government entity or university.
And when she does graduate, she will be MU’s first black woman to get a doctorate in biological engineering. It will culminate a college career that includes 5 ½ years at Texas Tech University earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.
As a lifelong Christian and member of various service organizations, including Minority Introduction to Technology in Engineering and the Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students, Manor also wants to make sure that minority and underprivileged students get a chance to experience opportunities in math and science as rewarding as her own.
“It’s something God wants me to do, I think,” Manor said. “I don’t know if I’ll be doing science the rest of my life, but I do want to always be doing something that’s going to help somebody else.”