Caltech students honored for innovative work

March 13, 2009

Pasadena, Calif.-- A third-year PhD chemistry student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is the first-ever winner of the newly created Lemelson-Caltech Student Prize. Ophir Vermesh will receive $30,000 in recognition of his contributions to the creation of an innovative "blood barcode chip" that promises to revolutionize diagnostic medical testing. The Lemelson-Caltech Student Prize is supported through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program. The program recognizes outstanding inventors, encourages sustainable new solutions to real-world problems, and enables and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. The Lemelson-MIT Prize has been handed out at MIT since 1994. Under a new effort to expand the prize, a similar award is now being given to Caltech students.

The selection committee also named a runner-up: William Chueh, a Caltech graduate student in materials science, who will receive a $10,000 award through the additional support of Caltech alumnus Michael Hunkapiller.

Vermesh--who works in the labs of James Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech--has been a key contributor in an effort to develop a microfluidics chip designed to take a finger-prick of blood, separate the plasma from the whole blood, and then assay it for a large panel of blood-based protein biomarkers using a barcode-like format, all within a five minute time period. This microchip, called the Integrated Blood Barcode Chip (IBBC), has the potential to completely change how clinical-based blood protein biomarkers are measured. According to Heath, "As a measurement of the value of the IBBC, it is already being utilized in multiple human trials, including a brain cancer trial that involves oncologists at UCLA, and will eventually extend to include patients from Kaiser hospitals in California. Ophir's chip dramatically expedites and lowers the cost of testing for blood proteins in assessing disease."

Born in Israel in 1979, Vermesh and his family moved to the United States when he was two years old. He has grown up primarily in Southern California and earned his BS in chemistry and mathematics and his MS in chemical engineering in 2002 at Stanford University. After working briefly as a researcher in metabolic engineering and neurology labs at UCLA, Vermesh enrolled as a medical student at UCLA in the fall of 2004, where he is in his fifth year of the UCLA-Caltech MD/PhD program. He plans to pursue academic medicine and hopes to help bring the cost-effective IBBC to third-world countries, where access to health screening is limited.

William Chueh, a runner-up in this year's prize, works under Sossina Haile, professor of materials science and chemical engineering. Chueh has developed a method to produce fuel directly from heat, by heating and cooling cerium dioxide with the effect of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. "William is, without question, an outstanding inventor with a passion for creating sustainable new solutions to real-world problems," says Haile, who has worked with Chueh when he was an undergraduate and graduate student at Caltech. "William has been and continues to be a remarkably creative and inventive force behind what may be one of the most significant breakthroughs in sustainable energy research of our times," says Haile.

The evaluation committee was so impressed by Chueh's project that the original second-place prize of $1,000 was raised to $10,000.

Born in Taiwan, Chueh immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 11. He studied at Caltech, majoring in applied physics, and completed his senior thesis project with Haile on fuel cell catalysis. He remained in Haile's research group as a graduate student and is expected to graduate in 2010.

"The Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize finalists and winners have the potential to be the technological and entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow," states Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program that oversees the Lemelson-Caltech Student Prize. "The winners were selected based on the potential societal impact of their inventions, their ability to act as role models, and their unwavering dedication to invention. These innovators are helping to close the gap between science and societal needs by making contributions that will foster cultural appreciation for invention's role in strengthening the U.S. economy."

Jerome H. Lemelson, one of U.S. history's most prolific inventors, and his wife Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, a philanthropy that celebrates and supports inventors and entrepreneurs in order to strengthen social and economic life in the United States and developing countries.

With further support from Caltech alumnus Michael Hunkapiller, the Lemelson-Caltech Student Prize program was able to offer a runner-up prize this year. Hunkapiller received his PhD at Caltech in 1974 and is a coinventor of the DNA sequencer, technology developed at Caltech that allowed the Human Genome Project to map and sequence the three billion base pairs of human DNA.
More information:

Lemelson-Caltech Student Prize:

Lemelson-MIT Program:

California Institute of Technology

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