STEM SIGHTS: The Concordia student who finds microfluidic solutions
Imagine creating a device that’s capable of testing for diseases, sequencing DNA or even producing green fuel. Now, imagine that device is the size of the plastic card you use to pay for your morning coffee.
“Lab-on-a-chip” technology harnesses the power of microfluidics, which deals with moving and manipulating very small volumes of fluid. It’s a highly multidisciplinary field, incorporating expertise from electrical and mechanical engineering as well as computer science.
Fatemeh Ahmadi is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Concordia. Under the direction of Steve Shih, her dynamic research combines microfluidics with biology to develop biofuels.
‘We have the opportunity to discover new enzymes’
How does the specific image above relate to your research at Concordia?
Fatemeh Ahmadi: This image shows a microfluidic chip — also known as a “lab-on-a-chip.” It represents the integration of biological and chemical processes on a credit card-sized device.
Think about the plumbing system in your house — it consists of mazes of pipes with inlets and outlets that have litres of fluid passing through them. When you shrink those pipes by about a million times and use them to perform chemical and biological processes, you get a lab-on-a-chip.
My research aims to use these devices to solve some challenging problems in the field of energy, specifically in optimizing processes related to biofuel production.
What do you hope will be the impact of your project?
FA: In my view, society currently faces two major challenges: issues in health and in energy. If my device is successful, we have the opportunity to discover new enzymes that can be used for producing biofuel. Processes related to biofuel production are expensive and this is one of the reasons why we don’t see more green-friendly fuel in the market.
Working with microfluidic chips allows us to test thousands of enzymes to determine which ones efficiently break down long-chain sugars into simpler sugars (for example, glucose), which are used for biofuel production.
What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?
FA: One current challenge is to analyze thousands or possibly millions of biological samples. This requires sophisticated electronics and clever computer programming. Luckily, the Shih Microfluidics Laboratory has some bright computer programming enthusiasts with interdisciplinary knowledge who are working very hard to solve this problem.
What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?
FA: Microfluidics is currently being used in many biological processes like cell culturing, single-cell analysis, DNA sequencing and medical diagnostics.
How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research?
FA: As one of the great interdisciplinary fields, microfluidics has exceptional potential for bringing researchers from various backgrounds together. Given its vast applications in biotechnology, interested students from different majors can join research groups who are working in this area.
To obtain more information, read new published papers in the field of microfluidics and also check out the Shih Microfluidics Laboratory website.
What do you like best about being at Concordia?
FA: I like the multiculturalism and the friendly environment of the university! In my opinion, it makes international students like me feel welcome and gives us the motivation to spread our ideas.
Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.