Getting into the (Micro) Flow of Research
From waves in the ocean to the swirls of creamer in our morning coffee, we interact daily with fluids—liquids or gases—in a variety of contexts, mostly on a rather large scale. Less familiar to us yet still common are small-scale flow systems, known as microfluidics. These systems can be seen in everyday products, such as pregnancy tests or at-home antigen tests for COVID-19, as well as in a broad range of sophisticated scientific research and applications, from cancer studies to catalysis. At such a small scale, fluids can move through pipes the size of a human hair, and behave very differently from larger scale applications.
Every spring, the undergraduate and graduate students in Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Sarah Perry’s Microfluidics and Microscale Analysis in Materials and Biology (CHEM-ENG 535) class not only learn about these tiny, fascinating systems, but have a chance to apply their knowledge to the hands-on development of microscale technology. Perry solicits project ideas from researchers on campus, at other universities, and even at private companies, including Merck, Novartis, and 3M. Students are encouraged to choose topics that are relevant to their own interests and/or field of research and to use the course as a basis for developing microfluidic technology for use in their own work.
The projects done in the class have meaningful real-world impact. For example, several years ago, Rae Walker, associate professor in the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing and associate director of the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, sponsored a project in the class to assist chemotherapy patients.
“Chemo drugs are very toxic and are excreted in bodily fluids, so patients need to know when the drugs have fully passed through their bodies so they can resume normal activities,” Perry explained. “Professor Walker worked with us to try and design a simple test that could detect the presence of a chemotherapeutic drug in urine. The ultimate goal was to create a simple system whereby a cellphone camera could be used to quantify the measurement.”
The project ultimately led to a funded grant from the Oncology Nursing Society.
In recent years, Perry’s students have worked on a project sponsored by Craig Martin, professor in chemistry, developing a microfluidic flow reactor in order to commercialize new technology to produce large quantities of extremely pure RNA for use in vaccines and therapeutics. This work is ongoing and has resulted in several significant grants to support development of the technology.
While most students in the class are either juniors or seniors studying chemical engineering, Perry also enrolls graduate students as well as undergrads from a broad range of majors, including biomedical engineering, mechanical and industrial engineering, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, and food science.
...students tend to come away with increased confidence about their ability to solve real-world problems.
Some students, typically graduate students or undergrads already involved in laboratory research, come to the class with a specific research problem they wish to investigate that would benefit from the use of microfluidics, said Perry. Others come with a broad interest in learning about the material.
“They may have an interest in biological applications, materials, or otherwise, and the course gives them insight into this field, as well as the opportunity to experience designing, building, and working with these devices for a real-world application,” she said. “For many students, this is the first time they have had to work on an open-ended problem like this, and while it can seem daunting at first, students tend to come away with increased confidence about their ability to solve real-world problems.”
This semester, Jamar Hawkins, a graduate student in mechanical and industrial engineering, has been working on a research project to increase the cell density of biological fluids, with a goal of safely isolating the cells of breastmilk to study individual breast cancer risk. He enrolled in Perry’s course to gain background on microfluidics and receive guidance on his project.
Conducting hands-on research has presented him with “the challenge of creating a physical model that validates course concepts and calculations,” he said.
Hawkins hopes to publish this research in a scientific journal. After obtaining his degree, he plans to apply for jobs in microfluidics or cell-based bioengineering.
Kat Nilov ‘22 (they/she), a chemical engineering major, enrolled in the class as preparation for graduate studies, believing that developing skills in microfluidics would give her a “leg up” in choosing a lab with this focus. Her research project, which extends her chemical engineering skills into the biological realm, advances the work of Martin in chemistry by synthesizing and purifying RNA on a microchip.
“One of the goals of this project is to create an avenue for personalized medicines,” Nilov explained, adding that it has helped them develop important skills for graduate school, such as making microfluidic devices via UV polymerization, and offered training in cleanroom techniques.
Moreover, they said, “There are many valuable skills that come from working hands-on with a group—time management, communication, and self-motivation. Hands-on research is fantastic for everything from proof-of-concept to revolutionary research. Seeing concepts on a screen and recreating them in life is the first step to imagining and creating new solutions to problems you haven't even learned yet."
This story was originally published in May 2022.