Dr. Jeremy Driskell’s research has landed major grants and been a part of some significant work that has had an immediate positive effect on public health. 

The professor of chemistry, who has been at Illinois State University since 2011, secured $440,000 from the Department of Defense to help soldiers exposed to illness or bioterrorism, working to increase the speed of detecting and identifying viruses. He has partnered with other Illinois State scholars on a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to create a device that would enable investigators to gather forensic evidence from the field to accelerate on-site drug analysis technologies. The National Science Foundation awarded a $345,000 grant to him to study how proteins might stick to gold nanoparticles, a promising application in the medical field for delivering drugs, treating cancer, and detecting biomarkers for disease. 

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These research projects are Driskell’s favorites in terms of application. They are the most exciting way to attract students to his team at the Driskell laboratory. And they are the easiest for the public to digest because they can see the impact of his research. 

But as he sits back in his chair at his second-floor office in the Science Laboratory Building, Driskell smiles when talking about the nitty-gritty work that goes into smaller discoveries. As a scientist in love with his craft, some of Driskell’s favorite moments in the lab are when he finds the means that justify the ends. 

“Understanding how protein interacts has a broad application in medical and pharmaceutical industries and is a hot topic in the scientific community today.”

Tosin Ogunlusi

“I think some of those basic science discoveries are the most important discoveries that we’ve made that we can then use in the application,” Driskell said. “It takes a certain amount of experience to appreciate that level of detail.”  

Driskell began compiling that training and attention to detail as a student working with physical properties of nanoparticles as an undergraduate and in graduate school. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia, he worked with a group of infectious disease experts and became particularly interested in solving biological problems. Those experiences led him to the research projects he has worked on while at Illinois State. They have largely focused on developing bioanalytical tools and improving detection technologies.

According to his website, Driskell’s research “focuses on the development of novel diagnostic and biological assays by interfacing chemistry, nanomaterials, and biology.” His research also looks at the functions of surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS), antibody-antigen binding kinetics, and novel ligands. These complex scientific tests allow for faster analysis and the ability to better break down complex information in substances. 

“Our overall, long-term goal for all the work we’re doing is focused on developing point-of-care diagnostic assays,” Driskell said. An assay is a process of analyzing substance. 

Currently, Driskell’s team is studying the interaction between gold nanoparticles and proteins. If there are nanoparticles of a certain property, scientists can tailor the surface chemistry so that the nanoparticles behave in a way that detects a variety of molecules from drugs to proteins. This understanding of the surface chemistry will help to develop predictive models that make such diagnostic tools, used for early detection of infectious diseases and any other emerging diseases, readily available and accessible.

Graduate students McKenzie Riley (left) and Tosin Ogunlusi have studied the interactions between gold nanoparticles and proteins in the Driskell lab. (Editor’s note: This photograph was taken before the University’s reinstatement of a face-covering mandate.)

“Hopefully, this can lead to the development of a simple modification method that can be applied to other protein systems,” said McKenzie Riley, a graduate student in Driskell’s lab. 

Driskell’s lab is particularly enticing to students who want to pursue health-related, bioanalytical research. His groups run parallel with one another, meaning there is a subgroup working on the basic chemistry and another working on application.  

He encourages students to conduct hands-on research and ask a lot of questions. 

“Understanding how protein interacts has a broad application in medical and pharmaceutical industries and is a hot topic in the scientific community today,” said Tosin Ogunlusi, a graduate student. “Working in this lab, I have been able to gain the required skills needed in this field and also, the level of instrumental knowledge acquired would prepare me for my future career in the science industry.”

Driskell’s work on gold nanoparticles has been published in scholarly journals such as Talanta, Chemical Communications, Bioconjugate Chemistry, and Analytical Chemistry, and his book chapters include entries in the Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology and Functional Nanoparticles for Bioanalysis, Nanomedicine, and Bioelectronic Devices. Driskell was honored as an Emerging Investigator in both 2015 and 2016 by the Royal Society for Chemistry and won the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Outstanding Reviewers for Analyst award in both 2018 and 2019. 

He is always looking to advance the conversation about how things can be done, whether it’s improving technologies, educating future scientists, or carefully deliberating over every step of the process. It all adds up, he said, to improving public health and, therefore, human life. 

“Identifying those areas of greatest need where you can potentially make the greatest impact is what we do.”