Ph.D. candidate Maha Alafeef receives Golden Key Graduate Scholar Award


Kimberly Belser

Maha Alafeef is a second-year bioengineering Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Research Fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s School of Medicine. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at Jordan University of Science and Technology with honors, and her master’s at the Grainger College of Engineering, which will be completed in August. 

Her doctoral research focuses on developing novel nanomaterials for the imaging, sensing, and diagnosis of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. In her first year, Alafeef developed a nanoparticle sensor array that can be used to selectively identify the bacterial pathogens in the sample using machine learning. The sensor array is based on metal-doped carbon dots, and the results of this work have been reported in a research article published recently in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. 

“Presently, we are experiencing a once-in-a-century life-changing event from the global pandemic from COVID-19,” Alafeef said. “We are responding to this global need from a holistic approach by developing multidisciplinary tools for early detection and diagnosis and treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. Towards this aim, we worked on a research project that involves developing a naked-eye detection of COVID-19 virus. So we were able to develop a technology that can diagnose the presence of the virus within 10 minutes.” The findings from this study were recently published in the American Chemical Society’s nanotechnology journal ACS Nano.

Throughout her career, Alafeef earned many accolades including eight local and international awards, such as the “Girl in Science” prize from the European Union, the best poster award at the Bioengineering Graduate Symposium, and most recently the Golden Key Graduate Scholar Award. She was also a speaker at the 2017 World Science Forum, which brought together the world’s leading scientists, academics, decision-makers, and inventors. 

Her research papers were published in major international journals and conferences, in which her publications include the findings from her research projects within the biomedical field, where she uniquely integrates her skills in machine learning, nanotechnology, and biomaterials.

“Maha is a true scientist‒when the COVID-19 pandemic happened it was remarkable for me to notice that she jump-started the biosensing project and worked relentlessly to develop the plasmonic platform (ACS Nano 2020),” said Dipanjan Pan, Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and advisor to Alafeef. “A true team player, she collaborates very closely with the senior members of the lab and also effortlessly succeeds in mentoring junior members. Prior to moving to Maryland, I was an Associate Head for the Graduate Program at Illinois and also served as the Director of the Master of Engineering Program for many years. In that capacity, I’ve encountered many outstanding graduate students, some worked with me and some with other faculty members. I can vouch that she is probably the most independent researcher that I’ve seen so far and certainly one of the best from my lab.” 

In the past, Alafeef worked as a researcher for Carle Foundation Hospital, a Research Assistant for the Jordan University of Science and Technology, and as an intern for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“First of all, I really want to see my research project to be translated to clinical practice,” Alafeef said. She believes her research will be helpful in addressing the current pandemic. She is also adamant about combining nanotechnology and machine learning to find a solution to a lot of challenging problems in the biomedical field. 

Her goal for the future is to obtain an independent faculty position where she can lead her own lab and mentor the next generation of biomedical scientists. She also hopes to start her own company where she can translate her own research project into technology that can be used by the others. 

Alafeef attributes her progress within her research field to her family and Dr. Pan, for the impact they have had on her journey thus far. 

“Maha is a true scientist who comes with a solid academic background,” Pan said. “Her intellectual curiosity is remarkable and she is capable of walking on water. She has remarkable potential. It is my belief—based on my observation of past students—that she will continue to excel in her career.”