With little more than a conventional photocopier and transparency film, anyone can build a functional microfluidic chip.A local Cambridge high school physics teacher invented the process; now, thanks to a new undergraduate teaching lab at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), students will be able to explore microfluidics and its applications.The Microfluidics Lab, developed by Anas Chalah, director of instructional technology at SEAS, takes advantage of a simple but ingenious new method of creating lab-on-a-chip devices that are quick to produce, affordable, and reusable. (Microfluidic devices are used to study liquids at the microliter scale — such as a few drops of blood from a patient — while taking advantage of some fluid behaviors that take place only at the micro-scale.)Chalah is excited — contagiously so — about the lab’s potential to serve students from all areas of science and engineering.“Harvard University shaped the emergence of the field of microfluidics and soft lithography through the leading research conducted in the labs of George Whitesides and David Weitz, among others,” he says. “Now we are bringing those areas of experimentation to the undergraduate teaching labs at SEAS.”The first course to use the lab will be the mechanical engineering course ES 123, “Introduction to Fluid Mechanics and Transport Processes.” Students enrolled in the course this spring will use sophisticated COMSOL Multiphysics software to model the flow of liquid through chips of varying structure in order to design and build optimal chips in the lab. The COMSOL software is widely used for design projects in both academic research and industry.ES 123 is structured to emphasize the importance of the design process.“Students do the simulation, go through the homework, and get exposed to the process before they even get in the lab,” says Chalah.Chalah points out that the new lab will provide a core facility for multiple areas of undergraduate study. “We can get people from different disciplines excited about the same device,” he says.For example, the do-it-yourself opportunity will also appeal to budding biomedical engineers and premedical students, who can use the lab-on-a-chip devices to study and test clinical applications.Chalah is particularly interested in a device called a concentration gradient generator, which allows two or more fluids to mix in a very controlled manner, producing a range of concentrations from 0 to 100 percent.A variation of the device is used in drug testing, as it can be used to deliver a range of very precise drug concentrations to a set of experimental cell lines. With multiple cell lines built into one chip, as many as 80 tiny experiments can be performed at once, all under the same controlled conditions. Chalah expects that bioengineering lab courses at SEAS will soon be developed that incorporate this technology.The technology used in the lab is not new, but a process that makes it affordable certainly is.Commercially available microfluidic devices are produced in a clean room using high-resolution photolithography and etching, a process which pushes the retail price to around $500 each.Local high school physics teacher Joe Childs had a better idea: Design the layout of the channels in PowerPoint, print the image, and photocopy it onto a classroom-style transparency film several times until the layers of ink create raised ridges. The process results in a negative mold that can then be used to create channels in the polymer chip.It sounds rudimentary, but it works.Childs, who teaches at the nearby Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, collaborates with faculty and students at SEAS through the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program funded by the National Science Foundation‘s National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network.He first developed the process in the lab of Bob M. Westervelt, Mallinckrodt Professor of Applied Physics at SEAS and professor of physics, with graduate student Keith Brown. He is now perfecting it with Chalah and an enthusiastic team of young interns for the undergraduate teaching labs.Together, they can design and build a chip in a single afternoon, and, Childs adds, “the most expensive thing that we need is a copy machine.”The resulting chips are not as precise as the commercially available versions, but the benefit — besides the low cost — is that students will be able to experience the process of designing and building the devices themselves, applying their knowledge of the fundamental principles of fluid dynamics to create a functional tool.The simplified process will allow other science teachers to introduce their students to an aspect of physics that might previously have been off-limits due to cost.“Believe me,” says Chalah, “if people knew we could build a chip so cheaply, they would jump on it like this.”The creation of the new Microfluidics Lab, on the ground floor of Pierce Hall, was enabled by a generous donation from Warren Wilkinson ’41. The lab features state-of-the-art microfluidic pumps, microscopes, ovens, and soft lithography and fabrication equipment.A student in the new Microfluidics Lab peels back the polymer, showing engraved channels from an ink-transparency template.
Finding the fundsThe university has taken steps recently in the hopes that more undergrads will learn what it’s like to be a real researcher.“The College has always had some funding for undergraduate research, but not an established program with dedicated funds,” said Lamy, who became vice dean for Academic Programs in 2008. “So, when Dean Gilman became the dean of the College and I became the vice dean for Academic Programs, we decided that was going to be one of our priorities.”The Student Opportunities for Academic Research and Summer Undergraduate Research Fund both provide research stipends — $1,000 for SOAR and $3,000 for SURF — for undergraduate research. When the programs were launched, Dornsife College gave away $50,000 in research funding. Now, the programs sponsor more than $100,000 worth of undergraduate research in a year.“Over four years we’ve given away $648,000,” Lamy said. “I don’t think there’s any other institution in the United States that can say that.”The College isn’t just providing funding for research — it is also providing structured programs for students who might be unsure of where tobegin.The Problems Without Passports program gives undergraduate students the opportunity to do problem-based inquiry research in foreign countries. The program is limited to undergraduate students — partly so they won’t be intimidated by competing for spots with more research-savvy graduate students — and can be paid for with SURF funding.“We wanted to create a vehicle for undergraduate students to get involved right away,” Lamy said.In past years, students have done everything from interviewing survivors of the killing fields in Cambodia to studying healing in Brazil. This year, undergraduates will have the opportunity to research global health in Oxford, England, the effect of climate and environmental change on the ancient Mayan civilization in Belize, and possibly the politics of indigenous language in Ireland. Whether it’s about learning as much possible as or having something substantial to put on a résumé, research is on the minds of many undergraduate students.Daily TrojanResearch opportunities are traditionally easy to find in the natural sciences and engineering, as research is an obvious step for students pursuing these fields.But lately there has been a push for more undergraduate research in other areas — particularly within the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences.“We’re trying to increase the number of people doing research in the humanities. It seems to be a lot easier for the kids in the social sciences and sciences,” said Steven Lamy, vice dean for Academic Programs for the Dornsife College.Gene Bickers, vice provost for undergraduate programs, said for students in science and engineering, research “is a critical part of their preparation.” Butundergraduate research can enhance the college experience of any student.“Whether you’re in the humanities or the sciences, working with an expert is one of the best ways to learn,” Bickers said. ‘We expect the numbers to grow’SOAR and SURF have increased funding opportunities for undergraduate research, but there are a number of other possibilities.Several departments, such as international relations, have their own funds to distribute for undergraduate research. Individual schools often have their own funds, too.There are also several university-wide funding sources.Last summer more than 70 students conducted research funded by the Rose Hills Foundation, which grants fellowships of $5,000 each, according to Bickers. More than 50 students received $3,000 stipends from the Provost’s Research Fellowship last summer, and an additional 100 students received $1,000 fellowships in the fall. An additional 150 students received funding from the Undergraduate Research Associates Program.“We expect the numbers to grow this coming year,” Bickers said.Typically, about 70 percent of research proposals are accepted, Bickers said; proposals are generally rejected because they lack detail.Still, the university is hoping to increase the percentage of proposals it can approve, and new sources of funding are always being sought. ‘It stimulates my brain’Jenna Katherine Ross, a junior majoring in history, is currently assisting professor Peter Mancall on his upcoming volume about colonial North America. Ross explained her role involves reading through anthropological articles and investigating Inuit folklore to try to capture the Inuit identity.“The best aspect of conducting the research is the way it stimulates my brain,” she said. “The professors rely on me to not only find, but interpret information, and they use what I collect in their professional work. Accordingly, I think really hard about everything that I’m doing, and I’ve found that I’ve learned so much — my ability to analyze historical information has increased, and I’m beginning to feel more like a real historian, and less like astudent.” Inquiring mindsThough these programs and fellowships have helped increase the number of undergraduates involved in research, Lamy said the College is still looking for ways to engage students in humanities research specifically.Finding a research project can be more difficult for students in the humanities, but Bickers encourages students to be curious and seek out opportunities.“One of the best ways to learn about humanities research is to visit with a faculty member during office hours and inquire — often,” he said.Andrew Jones, a senior majoring in history who is also assisting Mancall with his book, said being proactive is critical.“My perception is that there’s a grant out there for anyone who has the imagination and dedication to come up with a project,” Jones said. “In the history department, I’ve been lucky to have professors eager to introduce students to research opportunities. But ultimately students must take initiative, which is how it should be.”