Monday, June 20, 2016

Just a Drop

I have certainly hit the cobblestones running in my first taste of Belgium. Within the course of a week I have moved into my apartment in the converted monastery of Wisteria, biked the storybook streets of Leuven, and sampled one of the local badminton clubs. Badminton is a very popular sport here, which is ideal for an avid player like me. This weekend four of us Johns Hopkins students visited Antwerp, arrived in the world famous rail station and toured the brewery of the local beer, “De Koninck.” We also enjoyed traditional waffles with dark Belgian chocolate drizzled on top, completing the cultural trifecta of beer, waffles, chocolate. Antwerp was a gorgeous, fashionable city, far larger and more tourist-oriented than our new home of Leuven. Already there are machinations for more trips on the days between our diligent weeks of work at IMEC.

In the laboratory at IMEC, I am working on microfluidic droplet technology under Yannick Vervoort, a PhD student who is collaborating through KU Leuven. In this technique, liquid droplets are captured in an emulsion within the micrometer-scale channels of a glass-silicon chip, where they can be manipulated and analyzed in various ways. In one application, numerous different genetically-engineered yeast strains can be grown in separate droplets and evaluated at rapid speeds. The process is orders of magnitude faster than traditional culturing of yeast in flasks. The ultimate goals of this application are characteristically Belgian: to identify superior yeast strains for the production of biofuels, chocolate, and beer.

I have completed most of the procedural and training tasks and have already begun my earliest experiments. My first challenge is to determine a method to extract droplets from the silicon chip, store them in a larger vessel, and then later reintroduce them for examination. This way we can process even more droplets! For now, I’m simply trying to avoid the rain droplets that fall frequently but delicately on the ancient city of Leuven.

Chris Argento graduated from Johns Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and has continued on in the same department to pursue a master’s degree in the laboratory of Joelle Frechette.

Leuven badminton club.

Droplets travel through a microfluidic chip

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