Thursday, September 4, 2014

Microfluidics and the World Cup

Today's blog comes from once again from IMEC intern, Polly Ma who spent time in Belgium during the World Cup this summer while doing research.

My very own official IMEC lab notebook!
I'm in my fourth week here at Leuven, and I'm finally getting into a rhythm working at Imec and living in a foreign country. Here at Imec, I am working on a microfluidics project making droplets on a silicon platform. The first two weeks, I tested different surfactants to improve droplet stability.

Surfactants are like detergents that help lower surface tension between liquids, in this case oil and water. They help the droplets keep their shape so that reactions can be run in each droplet separately. After testing several surfactants, I have moved on to working with a more complex device which aims to run reverse transcription and polymerase chain reactions in droplets.

Though my work back at Johns Hopkins also deals with running reactions in droplets, I am more used to working with a polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) platform for microfluidic chips. It has already been a great experience working in the Imec labs, as well as enduring a very steep learning curve.

Outside of the lab, I still get the opportunity to interact with my coworkers. Last Sunday, two of my colleagues at Imec hosted a musical concert, complete with a 5 piece brass, drums, and a singer. I really enjoyed seeing my coworkers out of the Imec environment and the concert was extremely fun!

Celebration in Oude Markt after Belgian win over Algeria.
This past Tuesday was also the Belgium's first game in the World Cup, and Belgians are crazy about their soccer! The game was at 6 pm, so many people left the lab early to grab a good seat at Oude Markt in the city center of Leuven. Oude Markt is a street of bars and each bar mounted several televisions outside to broadcast the World Cup games. It was so much fun seeing the patriotism and excitement from the Belgians, as well as hanging out with my coworkers in a relaxed environment. I'm looking forward to the rest of the World Cup season!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First, have a Belgian beer, but then get to work!

From left, Matthew, Polly, Rustin and Eugene try the local brew.
Today's blog comes from Eugene Yoon a senior in chemical and biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Leuven is a very pretty college town with lots of trees and friendly people. The weather can be rather erratic as it was raining a lot for my first week here and now it is hitting the 30's (Celsius) in my third week.

Our group from Hopkins decided to celebrate our arrival on our second day after getting settled in with a nice dinner in the town square. Dinner in Belgium would not be complete without the delicious premier beer that the country is famous for. Matt and I sampled the tripel karmeliet because our waiter told us it was his favorite.

Like I said, the city itself is quite beautiful. A lot of it has forest-like areas with paths for biking and running, but once you get inside the city there are many majestic buildings as well. There is also the Oude Market which is essentially a strip of cafes and bars where many of the college kids like to hang out. It is also definitely going to be the place to be to watch the world cup games!

IMEC is one of the world's premier research institutions in micro and nanoelectronics. It was founded in 1985 as the interuniversity MICROelectronics center, so perhaps INEC might be a more fitting name in the 21st century? Anyways, on our first day we received a tour around the place by our host PhD student, Evelien Mathieu. We saw the "ballroom" which is a massive cleanroom which houses multimillion dollar equipment viewable through a glass wall.

The ballroom is this deep!

I am working with my supervisor and PhD student, Jordi Cools, on a project combining mutlielectrode arrays developed at IMEC and 3D self-folding microstructures from professor Gracias' lab. Although the P line (production line) equipment is state-of-the-art and can fabricate nano-scale structures, IMEC also has an experimental research section called the III-V lab.

I will probably spend a lot of time in the III-V since P line stuff is inacessible to me because it is for high throughput and standardized industry processes. There is much work to do and with that I will conclude this blog entry!

A weekend trip to Amsterdam

From Polly Ma from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Read on.

Our first weekend at Leuven was a four-day weekend, so on Friday, I set off to Amsterdam with a few other students. We caught a bus from Brussels and the ride was about 3.5 hours long due to holiday traffic. When we arrived in Amsterdam, we checked into a little hostel. It was my first experience with hostels and completely different from anywhere I've ever stayed.

The Amsterdam crew!
Cruising on the Amsterdam canals
I shared a room with the three other students from Hopkins and our room had two sets of bunk beds. The room had one tiny bathroom and the entire floor had to share a shower. My first day in Amsterdam was spent getting oriented and getting to know our surroundings. At night, we went on a pubcrawl where we met people from Ireland, England, and France!

The next day, we found a small farmer's market a few blocks from our hostel. We had fresh-made crepes and fruit smoothies for breakfast. After breakfast, we went on a boat tour through the canals of Amsterdam, where we got to see some beautiful sights. The cruise was about 75 minutes long and a nice break from all the walking around. After the cruise, we walked around Vondelpark, a scenic park with people rollerskating and playing soccer and picnicking and just relaxing. In the evening, we visited the infamous Red Light District. The streets were so crowded with tourists that it was difficult to maneuver the streets.

In our final day in Amsterdam, we saw a bunch of different museums. In the morning, a few of us wanted to go to the Anne Frank House Museum, but there was a 2-hour wait, so we decided to go back later in the day when it was less crowded. Instead, we walked around the Jordaan neighborhood, which was quiet and filled with many cafes. There was also small cheese shop and museum that had tons of free samples, so we spent a half hour in there, learning about different cheese types.

Homemade granola sold at the farmer's market
In the afternoon, we made our way to the Van Gogh Museum, that features the works of Van Gogh and Felix Vallotton. After that, we went back to the Anne Frank House and the wait then was only 45 minutes. Walking through the house was incredible and extremely somber, and it was definitely worth the wait.

At the end of the day, we caught a bus home, missed our train, took 3 other different trains, and finally made it back to Leuven in one piece. It was an exciting first weekend, but my real work at imec started on Monday, which I'll talk about more next time!

Photos courtesy Polly Ma.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Weekend trips offer breaks from research

Today's blog post comes from Rustin Golnabi,  a junior at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. 
It’s already been about three weeks since I’ve arrived in Belgium. I should have started writing blog posts sooner, but with all the excitement of the new environment, trips every weekend, and just getting settled overall, it’s taken a while to be able to put aside time to write about my experiences. Hopefully this will be the first and only time I have such a delay in writing this!
The first week I got here was hectic. From the airport, Eugene, Matt, and I had to figure out the technicalities on the first day, mostly without a bike (which I have learned by now is absolutely necessary!). Then I went in for orientation on Tuesday, and were to start work that afternoon and continue on Wednesday. It turned out (as our luck would have it) Thursday and Friday were holidays, so my supervisor, Pieter, told me to just hang out and read papers until the next week began. That week, we also met a couple more Americans, here by NSF funding, who were planning a trip to Amsterdam that weekend. So the four of us (Polly, Eugene, Matt and I) joined! It was rather expensive because of the last minute booking and heavily touristic nature of Amsterdam, but definitely a nice first trip!

Amsterdam was beautiful. It seemed the only methods of transportation were by bike or tram. That, combined with the canals running through the city, made for very few cars and gorgeous scenery. To be honest, I don’t think I met a single native Dutch person there (because of the huge number of tourists), which disappointed me, but nevertheless, I had a great time, and I’m glad I got to see the city.

The next week, my work began to take off at imec. I was assigned to become familiar with the waveguide setup and begin characterizing a set of devices. While I have a slight background in photonics research, I can’t say I know too much about the subject, so I spent a lot of time trying to understand the concepts and what it was I was actually doing. I felt like I was thrown into a completely unfamiliar realm, but the people here understood that and worked with me.
The rest of that week, I just became more familiar with imec and the environment, and explored Leuven a bit. The town is gorgeous. I can’t quite pinpoint what it is I love about it, whether it is the incredible architecture, charming streets, access to everything you may need, or just friendly environment.
Anyways, that weekend I decided to go to Prague, where I would meet up with my cousins who were also travelling that week.

Prague was incredible, and I had so much fun with my cousins. We visited all the key spots, like the clock tower, the Charles Bridge, and the Jewish Cemetery. I met some awesome people on the plane ride there, an American couple with a baby who were in Brussels for a year on a work exchange. We happened to run into each other a couple times in Prague itself, then even ended up sitting next to each other on the flight back! It was an amazing coincidence, but I was so happy it happened.
Later, they offered to drive me into Brussels that Monday to explore, and I did. That Monday was another Belgian holiday, so I got lost in Brussels for the day, met a really great Moroccan tea shop owner, a friendly Museum administrator who helped me decide on my activities for the day, and I finally got the best Belgian Waffle I’ve had. Speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve gone a day without eating either chocolate or waffles (or both), and I have absolutely no regrets about that. I mean, there is a reason for their notoriety in Belgium. :)
The week following my adventures in Prague (and Brussels), my supervisor Pieter was in California for a conference, so it was a bit difficult finding what to do to keep myself occupied. The head of our group was hardly in his office that week, so I continued to read, familiarize myself with another set of programs I was to be working with, and eventually begin to take measurements on a new set of devices. The week was largely uneventful, but it was some much-needed time to relax in my apartment.
Belgian Chocolate

Belgian Waffles
At the end of that week, I decided to visit Brussels on Saturday, and Brugge on Sunday. I stayed in a hostel in Brussels Saturday night, mostly to get a chance to meet more people, but also because of the low cost. I did the free walking tour of Brussels on Saturday, which taught me some more about what it was I was seeing and showed me some beautiful sights in Brussels. I really do love the city; it’s terribly underrated. 
I would recommend to anyone visiting the area to make a stop in Brussels. I also visited the Atomium that night, which was pretty cool! I knew not to expect too much, but I felt that I had to see it, especially since I had just finished a year of learning about unit cell structures like this one (body-centered cubic!). The inside was just a simple exhibit with a restaurant in the top “atom”. 
It was of course too expensive for me to eat at, so I went back into Brussels for dinner that night. The next day, I took a tour of Brugge. I met some amazing people on the tour and train ride there, who I’m excited to keep in touch with in the future. I think that honestly 90% of travelling to me is meeting new, interesting people, and for that this trip was the best so far. Brugge is a beautiful little town; it’s one of the most well-preserved cities of medieval times. It was worth a day trip, but that was probably enough to see it all.

After all this sightseeing, I don’t want to stop! This weekend, I’m going to Cologne, Germany, and next I think I’ll head to Antwerp and Ghent (two cities in Flanders).
I’ve been focusing a lot on the travelling I’ve done, but the reason I’m here is to learn at one of the premier research consortiums in the world. You can really tell why imec has the reputation it has once you get here. The cleanrooms are first class, and some of the most intense research happens within this building. The work environment is definitely pretty contrasting with that of the US, though.
Rustin Golnabi
People tend to take full hour lunch breaks, come in whenever they want, and leave whenever they want, and just hang out and take coffee breaks in between as well. It makes for a really relaxed working environment, where you don’t at all feel stressed. Despite all this, however, the work is results-based, so everyone actually gets a lot done. Belgium is one of the most productive countries in the world, actually! It’s pretty cool to know that despite the lack of pressure put on the scientists, everyone is always busy and getting something done.
My work, specifically, hasn’t really taken off too much because the setup my group had planned for me to work on this summer wasn’t ready in time. In fact, it should probably be ready next week. For now, they have me characterizing some existing devices on a large wafer, not only to familiarize myself, but also to add to the results they are collecting from this set of “test” waveguides and resonators. I like the work, though it can be frustrating, and I find it interesting. It may not have been my ideal topic of research for this summer, but I can already tell that I am learning a lot, and from one of the best places in the world to learn!

 All photos by Rustin Golnabi.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Diversity rules at IMEC

Today's blog post from Belgium comes from Matthew Gonzalez, a senior in Materials Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

My first two weeks are coming to an end here in Belgium. I’m finally starting to settle into Leuven and beginning real work at IMEC.

Leuven is a wonderful, little college town with quite of bit of entertainment. The Wisteria, the apartments we are all staying at is a short bike ride—only 15 minutes—from the town center where most of the action happens. There are plenty of little restaurants to grab dinner at and the Oude Markt, or Old Market, is the place to be on the weekend nights.

Night out at Oude Markt
Our Hopkins group got dinner and went to a few bars afterwards with some of the people we work with. Despite us being about 5 years younger, they were all very nice and friendly, inviting us along to make us feel welcome. The group we went with was made up with people from Spain, Italy and other countries beside the native Belgians.

IMEC is a very diverse place pulling in researchers from all over the world. I find myself trying to guess what someone’s accent will sound like before they open their mouth. Everyone speaks English, but each with a unique accent...everyone can instantly tell I’m an American after a few words. The nice thing is people actually like us Americans—I don’t think I’d be saying the same if I was in Paris!

IMEC itself is incredible. It reminds me of a big corporate lab from a movie that James Bond would break into. I will not be working in the huge cleanrooms, one of the most mentionable features of IMEC. This may be a good thing though because I’ve heard how obnoxious suiting up is. I still work in a clean environment in an argon atmosphere glove box, otherwise the lithium we use as the electrodes in the battery tests would ignite...which is never a good thing.

My project is the development and testing of batteries. Now I’ve never had any experience with batteries in my past research, which focused on controlled synthesis of nanoparticles. Although I will take some of the nanoparticles I’ve synthesized and use them as electrode materials, I first need to get the methods down. The general idea is coat a wafer in nanoparticle based thin film to create ultra-thin battery materials.

Leuven architecture
I’m almost finished with my first set of experiments—running tests on six pre-fabricated samples—and will learn the analysis process in the coming weeks so that I can become more independent and begin work on some novel experiments. Everyone in my group is very friendly and more than willing to help and teach me what they know. I still haven’t met the PhD student I will most closely be working with since he is on holiday (or on vacation for us Americans), but I’ll hopefully have a good grasp on the techniques and methods when he comes back.

I’m very excited to start research in a new field and learn all I can while I’m here…though I’m sure there will be plenty of fun to be had as well!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

First days in Leuven: apartments, shopping, transportation and labs

The 2014 Summer at IMEC group is already hard at work and we have our first blog post from Polly Ma from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Read on.
My apartment in Leuven.

"It's been a week since I've arrived at Leuven, and I've finally started to learn the ins and outs of the town. For one, all shops and stores close extremely early and aren't open on Sundays either. There's no such thing here as a 2 a.m. stop at Subway to satisfy those late night cravings. Leuven is also the epitome of a college town, and the people here are generally on the younger side and very friendly. There hasn't been much of a language barrier at all, since most people in this city can speak English and are willing to pause and help the struggling lost American in the middle of the street. Also, in general, people in Leuven bike to get everywhere. The bus is also quite convenient, but at 2 euros a ride, it can get expensive. For people who do drive, all of their cars are much smaller than those in America. Speaking of smaller, portion sizes are also much smaller in Europe in general. The "regular" or medium size here is what we call a "small" in America, and the "large" size in America generally is never served in Europe. From what I've noticed, people here in Leuven at least, are fitter and dress better too.

Adjusting to life here hasn't been too difficult after renting my own bike to get around. In my first week here, I spent the first three days running around, getting registered at the appropriate locations, paying all my deposits, and looking for wifi in random locations (we couldn't get internet access in our rooms until we registered, which didn't happen until the third day.) The building we're staying at is called Wisteria at De Waag, and everyone is in a fully furnished studio. I got lucky, and my room came with a toaster, coffee maker, iron, hot water boiler, and a bunch of other goodies, like a double sized bed! The only downside to the room is that there is no wireless internet, but a few students bought routers and made their own. On the second day, we had orientation day at IMEC to meet our supervisors, take a safety tour, and get our badges. The IMEC campus is beautiful and quite large. It's almost a 7-10 minute walk from the labs to my desk office. Many parts of the buildings remind me of the office buildings in the Silicon Valley; they are big windows, very white walls, shiny surfaces, and lots of light. IMEC also has amazing equipment and facilities, most of which puts the stuff we have at Hopkins to shame.

Modern IMEC lab.
After finally getting oriented, Thursday turned out to be a holiday in Belgium, so we didn't have to go to work. Friday at IMEC was also a day off, so in my first week here, I already had a long weekend! To make the most of it, the four of us from Hopkins, as well as a few other friends we met, decided to make a spontaneous trip to Amsterdam (which I'll talk about in my next blog post!) However, I haven't had a chance to really explore and sightsee in Leuven or other parts of Belgium. Hopefully that will change soon!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The past and present collide in Leuven

During the summer of 2012, I was lucky enough to make a quick visit to IMEC to start a project with Evelien Mathieu, a Ph.D. student at IMEC. Last April, Evelien visited JHU and the lab of my adviser, Dr. Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, to learn techniques to study cell migration.

Now, the collaboration continues, and I am back in Leuven. We are working on combining a microfluidic device that we use to study cell migration with exciting imaging technologies being developed at IMEC.

IMEC is located adjacent to the Arenberg campus of KU Leuven, the largest university in Belgium. This photo is of Castle Arenberg, which amazingly was built in the sixteenth century and now houses the KU Leuven Faculty of Engineering.

In the photo, you can see IMEC's newest addition, a modern glass tower, which is still under construction, rising in the distance. I think the photo is a good symbol for my research project for the summer. Scientists have been studying cell migration for many years, but there is still a lot to learn. With our work at IMEC and JHU, we will build on the work of the past to make the study of cell migration more efficient and more productive. I'll keep you updated on how we're doing.

Blog post by Colin Paul, a doctoral student in the chemical and biomolecular engineering laboratory of Konstantinos Konstantopoulos

Photo by Colin Paul.