Playing with Microfluidics

Summer 2014

Claire Preston

Schulich Leader at McMaster University

This summer, I have the awesome privilege of working on another research project in the same polymer physics lab as I did last summer. Polymer physics is an interesting field of physics in that it is not hugely popular, but this means there is a lot that has not been studied and plenty of opportunities for discovering new and exciting science. This summer I'm investigating microfluidic movement, dealing with volumes of liquid of less than one microlitre. The substances I am using are polymers, mostly common plastics. When these are heated, they behave like thick liquids. The conventional way to control flow of liquids is using tubes or channels. However, this is not the only way - think of water condensing from the air onto spiderwebs to form dew. Liquids in small volumes can also adhere to and travel along the outside of thin fibers, which is what I am experimenting with. Many technologies are in use and emerging that depend on microflui dic structures. Inkjet printing, air and water contamination testing, and biomedicine are only some examples of areas where microfluidic control can be of utmost importance. Therefore, research involving systems like the one I am looking at could potentially contribute to new technological developments. Cool!

As I found out last year, research is frustrating. In my case and, I'm sure, many if not most cases, the majority of the time, things don't work. Your experiment doesn't do what you want, your data is not consistent, your code turns out abominable results. But you keep adjusting, brainstorming, implementing random ideas, and occasionally something small happens that matches up with what you were expecting. When this happens, it is so exciting! But especially if you are working on your own project, this excitement is kind of alienating - nobody understands your struggles. No one can fully identify with your little moment of personal victory and glory before you go back to try other things and, like usual, they don't work. It is these small successes I have experienced, the excitement of possibly being onto something that could change, even in the smallest way, our perceptions of the mysterious world we live in, in addition to the occasional thought that &qu ot;Wow, probably no one has done this before, I'm looking at untouched science!" that make me feel that I want to continue on in research and development in the future.