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Perry’s Microfluidics Course Translates Textbook Learning into the Hands-on Engineering Done in Industry

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry

Chemical Engineering (ChE) Professor Sarah Perry has transformed her class in microfluidics from the sort of dry theoretical course she took in graduate school into the kind of applied, do-it-yourself experience that every engineer loves. Perry designed her course in “Microfluidics and Microscale Analysis in Materials and Biology CHEM-ENG 590E” to give students industrially and scientifically relevant, hands-on, laboratory projects based on microfluidic technology.

“Practical, hands-on problem solving experiences that Sarah has developed are incredibly valuable to preparing students for their future careers,” explains ChE Department Head John Klier. “The students learn critical laboratory, organizational, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. They have to work within fixed timelines, solve real problems, and engage with a range of stakeholders. These activities provide excellent preparation for similar real-world situations.”

Perry says that this hands-on approach is like the difference between reading a recipe and actually being able to make a soufflé. As she explains, “A lot of microfluidics courses really focus on textbook learning or reading scientific articles. And there’s this real difficulty incorporating that learning with real-life experience in the classroom. The critical factor about microfluidics is that it’s easy enough to do. And so we’ve set up a variety of projects that are sponsored by labs on campus or different organizations off-campus.”

One of those sponsored off-campus projects comes from the UMass Medical School, one is from the university of Connecticut, and one even originated from a national lab in Australia, all incorporated into Perry’s course through her own very extensive networking.

“And it really gives students the opportunity to build these devices in the lab and also to work on the same kinds of open-ended problems that they will experience in industry,” Perry observes. “And so they go in there and, if it doesn’t work, or it clogs, or it spreads food coloring everywhere, then they have to work it out. That sort of open-ended problem is different from what we normally teach in the classroom, and so I think it’s really useful.”

Microfluidics is a multidisciplinary field intersecting engineering, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, nanotechnology, and biotechnology with practical applications for the design of systems which deal with the behavior, control, and manipulation of low volumes of fluids. The microfluidic field is used in the development of inkjet printheads, DNA chips, lab-on-a-chip technology, micro-propulsion, micro-thermal technologies, and many other applications. Two examples of practical products based on microfluidic technology are home pregnancy testing kits and home monitoring devices used by diabetics to measure their blood-sugar readings.

Perry’s course is set up to pursue applied microfluidic research. Following a series of introductory lectures and training modules, students work in teams of two or three on research projects sponsored by various research labs or industrial  partners. This approach is unique both in the Chemical Engineering Department and at UMass-Amherst, and it provides an opportunity for students to experience realistic laboratory-style research in a classroom setting.

“There are no right answers, we have not solved the problems ahead of time, and they have to work as a team to create a viable solution,” as Perry says.

In tandem with their design projects, students also present lectures on related general scientific topics while also providing an overview of current research in the field. Each team also creates a publicly available wiki page on its topic using the NSF-funded website for the course, which is part of an openly accessible online wiki “textbook” for the class.

During the course, each student team researches a particular type of microfluidic technology and its utility for a specific application; then designs, fabricates, tests, and optimizes its chosen microfluidic device related to that application. The final results are presented to each sponsor in both a summary report and an oral presentation at the end of the semester.

Perry’s course is gaining widespread recognition, as demonstrated by the 28 undergraduates and three graduate students who took her course last semester. In the past, her class attracted chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, biochemistry, biology, and polymer science & Engineering students from UMass, as well as one engineering student from Smith College and one biology major from Mount Holyoke College. It’s a 500-level course, so it combines graduate and undergraduate students.

As Perry notes, “What I’ve seen from the students is that the first month of classes, it’s really stressful because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. But then they begin to get it, and they dig in and have real ownership. It’s a very meaningful experience. The hands-on part is fine. I think the bigger struggle they have is getting their heads wrapped around the scientific challenge. That’s true when you start any new engineering job.”

Some students have the opportunity to bring relevant research from campus labs where they’ve been working. For instance, last semester Perry had three undergrads from ChE Professor Neil Forbes’ lab. “His lab wants to use three-dimensional cell cultures as realistic tumor models,” says Perry. “They use these little spheres of cells to model how chemotherapeutic drugs affect real tumors. An important aspect of this research is characterizing how different chemo drugs get into the spheroids and kill the tumor as a function of time. This will allow for more efficient dosing of such drugs to enable successful cancer therapies with fewer side effects.

Perry says that one of the problems for the Forbes Lab is that, when it creates these spheroids, they come out in different sizes. Being able to separate the spheroids by size would dramatically improve the reproducibility of their experiments. As Perry explains, “The three students – Owen O’Conner, Michael Beauregard, and Uday Prakhya – were able to leverage skills and knowledge from their class on fluid dynamics to understand how different flows and device geometries can be used to separate these spheres by size. They then developed a separation device that works fantastically. The only thing that remains is how to optimize how you get the flow out of it. In other words, how do you harvest the spheroids?”

Other potential projects are in the general areas of materials testing, process automation, cell culture, chemical synthesis, and many other applications.

Perry says that her gifted teaching assistant, Shuo Sui, helps the students build all their devices. This past semester, Shuo was honored by the ChE department with the Tillwick and Eldridge Teaching Assistant Award for his efforts in this class. Perry adds that last semester her microfluidics course was really enabled by Dr. Peter Reinhart, director of the UMass Institute of Applied Life Science (IALS), who gave her students access to one of the IALS “collaboratory” facilities. She also received financial support from the Anatrace Corporation of Maumee, Ohio. (July 2017)