COVID-19 testing becomes part of grad student’s research

Engineer of the Month winner brings entrepreneurial spirit to her work

headshot of Vinitha Thiyagarajan Upaassana

Vinitha Thiyagarajan Upaassana. Photo/Corrie Mayer/CEAS Marketing.

Vinitha Thiyagarajan Upaassana, an electrical engineering doctoral student, has been named Graduate Student Engineer of the Month for April 2020 by the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science

Upaassana is working on developing lab-on-a-chip devices and sensors under the guidance of Chong Ahn, professor of electrical engineering. In Ahn’s lab, she has focused her research on point-of-care diagnostic devices that use saliva to detect mental and physical disorders and diseases, from malaria to respiratory ailments to cardiac biomarkers.

“I have had the opportunity to be able to customize our devices to various diseases and, given the recent situation, COVID-19 has become one of our focuses,” Upaassana said. “We are trying to specialize in the area of asymptomatic testing and also do a rapid test that takes less than 20 minutes.” 

Since the novel coronavirus only recently emerged, Upaassana said their research team is working to better understand the structure of the virus and determine what biomarkers it produces within the body in order to test saliva for the virus. 

In 2015, Upaassana chose to come to UC from her native India because of the multitude of biomedical microelectronic device work taking place.   

“I was interested in UC research on microfabrication and microelectromechanical systems with a biological focus, and an emphasis on the development of devices that are actually commercializable and something that can be used for everyday practical purposes,” she said.

Upaassana has a propensity for entrepreneurship, which she has channeled into startup concepts at UC.  In 2017, her team won first place in the UC Innovation Quest Elevator Pitch Competition (IQ E-Pitch) for their Salichek product, a rapid point-of-care diagnostic for hormone detection in saliva. She was listed on Cincy Inno’s “25 under 25” that celebrates young innovators in Cincinnati.   

She is also involved in Collaborite, another fledgling business supported by UC Venture lab and the StartupUC student incubator. Collaborite utilizes Big Data analytics of university research activities for industrial and federal collaborations. The team won the IQ E-Pitch competition twice in 2019 and 2020, earning $7,000 in combined cash prizes. They’re in the process of looking for seed funding for a full-scale launch. 

Upaassana encourages other students to pursue their own business ideas through the Technomentorship Establishment. She is the founder and president of the student organization which supports and inspires student technology entrepreneurs to commercialize their ideas in conjunction with business school partners. She has mentored more than a dozen student teams. 

She has taken on a leadership role in the Graduate Student Association. In addition to her work as a research assistant, Upaassana is a teaching assistant for several classes in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. 

Featured image at top: Vinitha Thiyagarajan Upaassana, an electrical engineering doctoral candidate, has been named Graduate Student Engineer of the Month for April 2020. Photos and video/Corrie Mayer/CEAS Marketing. 

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