Meet Sabine Kuss, 2021 Rh Award Winner in the Applied Sciences Category
Sabine Kuss investigates molecule transport across cell membranes by electrochemistry. The transport of metabolites, ions and pharmaceuticals is a crucial part of survival mechanisms for any living cell. The overall goal is to detect diseases, such as cancer, and to understand the development of medical phenomena, such as antimicrobial drug resistance, endocrinological diseases and mitochondrial dysfunctions.
Kuss is the 2021 recipient of the Terry G. Falconer Memorial Rh Institute Foundation Emerging Researcher Award in the Applied Sciences category in recognition of her team’s discoveries and developments in rapid, accurate and cost-efficient point-of-care biosensor devices, which aims to save time, health care costs and, most importantly, lives. UM Today caught up with her recently to learn more about her and the research she is undertaking.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your research.
My research team is the laboratory for bioanalytics and electrochemical sensing, and we combine several disciplines – chemistry, biology, microbiology, and a little bit of physics and engineering. It’s highly interdisciplinary and collaborative. I find it so intriguing to approach questions in medical research from a new angle.
Specifically, we look into the development of diseases and infections, and how cancer is initiated and progresses using electrochemical methods. So, for example, we develop sensors the size of a human hair which we can use to track the transport of molecules from living cells or bacteria. These molecules then provide us with information about what pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, or chemotherapeutics would work to treat a certain disease or illness.
Why is this research important?
Imagine if we had a tool that could predict within minutes which antibiotic or cancer treatment would be most effective. Normally, if someone has an infection, doctors prescribe an antibiotic blindly, and oftentimes patients must go through several rounds of treatments. This can lead to chemotherapeutic and antibiotic resistance. I think there is not a single pathogen that has not developed resistance to at least one drug.
By attacking problems from different perspectives, through interdisciplinary collaboration, we hope to be able to solve questions where standard practices are not able to give a complete diagnosis. This could ultimately save costs in the healthcare system and will also save many lives.
What does the Rh Award mean to you?
A recognition like the Falconer award is a huge encouragement. In the work of experimentation, we face many setbacks, and failures. We shouldn’t get discouraged by failure because learning from our mistakes is how we make progress. This award reminds it all adds up to something bigger.
What do you hope to achieve in the future?
The goal is really to provide diagnostic tools and technology that can be distributed to physicians in Canada and beyond. In the next years, I also want to incorporate this technology and this knowledge into teaching. I’m planning to develop courses that connect or expose undergraduate students to these state-of-the-art technologies. Our interdisciplinary approach has great potential in classrooms, and we need more people that can think outside the box, and beyond their own discipline.
What about you would people find surprising?
Probably that my career in Canada started out as an immigrant working as dishwasher in a sports bar, and that I used to live in a van for a few weeks. At least before I started studying. I came to Canada in 2008 after my undergraduate studies in biology.
I was a little bit bored by the techniques that we were taught in the German system in natural sciences – it’s based a lot on repetition, and memorization. I was not exposed to the real fun stuff until I got connected with the right people when I came to Canada. I met a chemistry professor who used electrochemistry to study biological samples, and I knew what I wanted to do.
Any advice for early career researchers and students?
Perseverance is everything. Don’t let little roadblocks discourage you. Hang on to the people that trust in you and that support you. Of course, it’s also important to listen to constructive criticism, but don’t get discouraged by failure or by research that doesn’t work. Hard work usually pays off.