INBT's International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program immerses students in bioengineering research at the Inter-University Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) in Belgium. The goal is to cultivate their perceptions of global challenges in STEM, learn how to collaborate with international partners, and develop their research skills.
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
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.