Lumen Scholar’s research part of effort to create lifesaving sanitation solution worldwide
Honors Fellow Michael Dryzer ’19 is among the recipients of the Lumen Prize, which provides selected students with a scholarship and celebrates their academic and creative accomplishments.
It would be easy for Elon senior Michael Dryzer to become distracted by the potentially lifesaving impact his Lumen Prize research could have for thousands or even millions around the world who don’t have access to safe and affordable sanitation.
“I try to not let it distract me,” Dryzer said of the potential impact of his research. “It’s one thing to get caught up in the clouds and to think that this is going to change the world. But you have to wake up each day and make sure you complete the steps to get there.”
A biophysics major and an Honors Fellow, Dryzer has been exploring the effectiveness of using electroporation to kill helminth worms and eggs — devastating parasites that impact communities without reliable or effective sanitation solutions around the world. He’s part of a team that includes researchers from Duke University who are participating in the ”Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”, an initiative backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
With more than 2 billion people worldwide lacking access to many of the sanitation systems easily taken for granted, a toilet that could operate “off the grid” in a cost-effective and sustainable way could be a lifesaver by removing germs from human waste while recovering energy, clean water and nutrients.
As a recipient of the Lumen Prize, Dryzer received a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate his academic endeavors. A new cohort of Lumen Scholars is selected in the spring of each year, with the Lumen Prize now carrying with it a $20,000 scholarship.
Dryzer arrived at Elon knowing he wanted to have an intensive research experience during his time at the university. “I began looking around for a mentor as early as the middle of my first semester here,” he said.
That led him to Chris Arena, who at the time was an assistant professor of physics. Arena had conducted extensive research in the use of electroporation to combat cancerous tumors. Electroporation uses electrical current to open microscopic holes in cells, with Arena focused on using the method to combat pancreatic cancer cells.
Arena, who has since moved to Virginia Tech, and Scott Wolter, associate professor of engineering, had begun a partnership with researchers at Duke University working on the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to explore the use of electroporation to kill helminth parasites. Producing a variety of parasitic worms, helminth eggs cannot be effectively eradicated by other disinfection techniques such as chemical disinfectants.
Using the worm C. elegans as a less dangerous substitute for helminths, Dryzer’s research focused initially on seeing if electroporation could produce pores in the worm eggshells and then determining the optimum electrical field needed to do so. His work during the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience in 2018 determined that opening up those holes in the eggshells was enough to kill them.
The project has since progressed to using helminth eggs at a biosafety laboratory at Duke specially designed for experiments using such dangerous parasites, with the experiments carried out on helminth eggs within wastewater, replicating how the toilet might work in the field. Results so far are very encouraging.
“Two years ago, we weren’t sure that this method would be used at all in Duke’s toilet system, but right now, we’re fairly confident that we’ll be able to use it to kill these worms and eggs,” Dryzer said.
Wolter has served as Dryzer’s Lumen Prize mentor, and he said that Dryzer has excelled in the laboratory and played a key role in pushing the work forward. “He’s very devoted,” Wolter said. “You couple that with his intelligence, and those are very desirable characteristics of a researcher. You can’t just assume things and try to calculate outcomes. You have to get in the lab and do the work, and Michael is very good at that.”
The Lumen Prize has supported Dryzer’s work in the laboratory while also helping him develop as a scholar. “It’s given me the opportunity to go out and present this research at places around the country, to show people what we are doing and how it might be a help,” Dryzer said.
Dryzer said he has developed as a science communicator, which is a passion of his. “In this age when people are starting to lose faith in science, I think it is increasingly important for people to become more scientifically literate,” he said. “While doing this project, I have learned how to distill very complex scientific concepts and principles, and then convey them to people without a STEM background.”
Looking long term, Dryzer anticipates continuing research, but with a shift in focus. He says he’s been immensely influenced by his sister with autism and wants to concentrate on studying autism and special needs to better understand what goes on in the minds of people with autism or other cognitive disabilities.
“I deeply appreciate my older sister and what she has taught me,” Dryzer said.