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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2004 / 03 

Undergraduate research experience advances education may lead to more rapid DNA identification

March 29, 2004

DNA is often used to identify mysterious materials or match a suspect with a crime. However, identification can be slowed while a trace amount of DNA is increased so there will be enough to test. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the series of steps necessary to amplify DNA.

Last summer, when Cindy Schreiber of Huntington, W.Va., was accepted into the research experience for undergraduates (REU) program at Marshall University, she decided she would streamline the PCR process to increase the rate at which DNA samples are replicated.

Schreiber, a junior in chemical engineering at Virginia Tech, will explain her research during the 227th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif., March 28-April 1.

In addition to creating a large amount of DNA quickly, Schreiber wanted her improved machine to further automate the process of identifying mismatched base pairings or mutations in a DNA sample "so that you know quickly whether the mismatch actually existed in the sample material," she explains. "I knew such a machine would help researchers and be of interest to industry."

She also wanted a machine that would be inexpensive enough for use by high school and undergraduate labs.

By the time she completed the 10-week REU, Schreiber hadn't tested her machine with DNA samples, but others can learn from her beginnings, and the experience did help her realize that she is interested in the biomedical engineering program at Virginia Tech

She learned that it takes time to gather research materials. She also learned how to solder and to machine objects, "things I didn't expect to be doing. I spent more time physically trying something before working out calculations," she says. "I was constantly changing things as I found new problems and new ways of looking at a problem. It was very hands on. You are under real pressure, but you have to keep working. The first day we actually got the computer to run the solution was a good day."

Two students working with Marshall chemistry professor Michael Norton may expand Schreiber's project, she says.

After she graduated from high school, Schreiber worked with Norton on a robotics product that would prepare samples for cultural analysis. "The REU was more of a biological experience and increased my interest in that direction."

She will begin her undergraduate research at Virginia Tech in fall 2004 and has added a fifth year to her studies at Virginia Tech in order to expand her research experience.

Schreiber's and Norton's poster, "Building a PCR machine: Chemistry in context (CHED 725)," will be presented at the Analytical Chemistry Undergraduate Research Poster Session, 2-4 p.m., Monday, March 29, in Anaheim Convention Center Hall A as part of the Division of Chemical Education program.


The accurate, efficient and rapid genotyping of cells is of increasing importance in biotechnology. A project involving the design and fabrication of a unique, reconfigurable thermal cycler, which amplifies deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), will be presented. In this straight-tube flow design, only the PCR solution moves, minimizing the thermal cycle time. The device also requires less material than traditional thermal cyclers. All PCR parameters in this testbed system are fully programmable through a customized interface, providing the user with the ability to design optimization experiments. The purpose of the project is three fold:  to produce a system that can rapidly identify unknown biological materials, to design a system that is inexpensive enough to propagate into high school and undergraduate laboratories, and to develop a learning platform for the student researcher/developer working at the interface between thermo/mechanical technology and biochemical systems.

For more information, contact:

Christine Schreiber, or Dr. Norton at (304) 696-6627,