Sims Award winner investigates harmful effects of nanoparticles

It is widely understood in the scientific community that nanoparticles enter the body through common everyday household items such as sunscreen, paints, and prescription drugs. However, the harmful effects of these nanoparticles on human health is far less clear.

University of Iowa graduate student Brittany Givens’ master’s research investigated the behavior of silicon dioxide nanoparticles, present in the above household items, when interacting with the body’s most abundant blood protein, bovine serum albumin (BSA).

Based on the excellence of her research, Givens was awarded the L.B. Sims Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award by the Graduate College. Her thesis, “The Bovine Serum Albumin Protein Corona on Nanoparticles: Investigating the Effects of Changing pH, Substrates, and Ions” was chosen as the top manuscript in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Engineering Category.

Brittany GivensGivens, who earned her master’s degree in chemical and biochemical engineering in 2017, observed that BSA maintained its structure when absorbed by silicon dioxide nanoparticles, suggesting that these nanoparticles are not harmful to humans in low doses for short exposure times. People need to inhale large quantities of nanoparticles for a long period of time to experience negative health effects.

Her thesis research contributed to the investigation into potential concerns of nanoparticles entering the body.

“It depends on how you’re being exposed. If you’re at work manufacturing products with nanoparticles and potentially breathing them, it’s a huge concern,” says Givens, who was co-advised on her thesis by Professors Vicki Grassian and Jennifer Fiegel. “Materials aren’t necessarily required to be disclosed on an ingredient list for products such as sunscreen or laundry soap. Now that more people are understanding that these nanoparticles can be put into food additives ingestion is being more widely looked at.

“From a drug delivery standpoint, people are actively trying to create new drugs. It is important government regulations come from a standpoint of truly understanding what toxicity can be caused by these materials and how can we stop that."

Givens is working with Professor Aliasger Salem on her doctoral dissertation in chemical and biochemical engineering. She expects to graduate with her Ph.D. sometime in 2019—five years after she began her master’s work at the UI.

Attaining two degrees in five years wouldn’t have been possible without a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship from the Graduate College and an Alfred P. Sloan Minority Scholarship.

“The fellowships allowed me to come up with my own ideas and pursue avenues with faculty members who share my interests,” Givens says.