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Using the Shrinky Dinks toy as inspiration, biomedical engineer Michelle Khine invented a way to shrink lab testing materials and equipment, resulting in increased testing speed and reliability while lowering costs.

Episode filmed live at the 2013 World Science Festival in New York CIty. Episode filmed live at the 2014 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

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Michelle Khine:

I am really excited to be back here. You know why I’m excited to be here today? You guys are the best audience in a world. Yeah? I’ve given talks on five continents, and I know you guys are the best audience. You know why?

Audience:

Why?

Michelle Khine:

How many New York City kids are there in the audience? Stand up if you’re a New York City kid. Let’s hear it for New York City kids! I’m a New York City kid. So it is great. It is really amazing to be home, to come home, to share with you why I love science, and to tell you a little bit about how I fell in love with science, and what I do for a living, and why I think I have the best job in the world.

Michelle Khine:

So I am a biomedical engineering professor. I think most people think professors teach all the time, just like the way your teachers do in elementary school. And we do teach, but that’s actually a small portion of what we do. The other things that we do is we do primarily research, and we also travel a lot. We travel around the world. We go to conferences all over the world to meet with collaborators and other scientists who are working on similar projects so that we can work together as one big community. And I’ve also been very privileged to get to go to really exciting places for my research. I’ve gone to Kenya. Those are the baby elephants in Kenya. I’ve gone to Australia, the Koala in Australia. You notice a theme in all of my pictures. I like little animals.

Michelle Khine:

And so you get to do a lot of exciting things. But the primary thing that I do is research, and somebody shouted out experiments. So that’s part of what I do as a researcher, as a biomedical engineer. Who knows what a biomedical engineer does? Do you have your hand up? I design things. Yes, I’m a designer. I design things. Some biomedical engineers design things like prosthetic arms for people who don’t have an arm. Other people design organs, so we grow heart tissue in my lab. So you get to do all different types of things as a biomedical engineer.

Michelle Khine:

Some biomedical engineers work at companies and others work at universities. So I’m very lucky to work at a university. And I have one very simple definition of what research is. Research is play. Who here likes to play? Is there really any hands that are not up there? Every hand. Is there a Grinch out there who doesn’t like to play? Oh, come on now, those hands should be up there, too, right? Don’t you love to play? Yay!

Michelle Khine:

So everyone can be a scientist. And I realized this. I learned this at a young age. I was very lucky, because my mom was a chemist, and I was a very shy, awkward, nerdy kid. And my favorite time was sitting in the kitchen, building things, and doing science experiments with my mom, or collecting specimens with my brother in the neighborhood and bringing them back to examine. And I wasn’t good at math and science in school, growing up. Science is about playing. It’s about embracing uncertainty, and loving that, and figuring out how things work, and loving life, and looking at things and wondering, and having that wonderment, and not having the right answer, because as a professional scientist, we don’t have the right answers. We know that we don’t know. And that’s great, because that gives us something to do. It gives us something to figure out.

Michelle Khine:

So these are pictures of, every time I come up with a new idea, I try to go into lab to try to figure it out. My students love to take pictures of me in lab, because they say I look like a mad scientist. There’s usually smoke all around me. And I’m an inventor. So I’ve invented things over the years. So this was a human powered vehicle that we built when I was a student at Berkeley. So it looks like a plane without wings, right? It’s a fully [inaudible 00:04:19] carbon fiber bike. It’s a tandem bike. So the back person rides backward and the front person rides forward, and there’s actually two different gear chains. And we won several world speed records with this. And I actually was the woman rider for the woman’s world speed record with this bike.

Michelle Khine:

But I’m really here today to tell you about my research. So, as one very smart gentleman said in the audience, I make things small. The field that I work on, it’s called lab on a chip, and it pretty much piggybacks off the semiconductor industry. So how you make computer chips, all the chips that are in your iPads and your computers and your phones, that’s how you make it. You work in this big lab. It’s called a clean room. Have you guys see in the Intel Inside commercials? Yeah, where they wear those big bunny suits, and they make these wafers. So that’s how you make microchips. And I make microchips, but my microchips are a little bit different.

Michelle Khine:

Instead of making, making microchips for computers, I make microchips for diagnostics. So the idea behind this is up here is a picture of a lab. So if you go into any lab right now, this is what it’ll look like. And we are trying to shrink everything down so it’s small, so you can put everything on a small scale. And you might think that this is crazy and farfetched, and why would you want to do this?

Michelle Khine:

So imagine how great it would be is if the next time you’re sick, you can go to the pharmacy, you can go to Walgreens, and pick up a little chip that you spit on, and then you’ll know if you can take the day off from school. You’ll know what medication to take. How awesome would that be? And there’s a bigger problem. There’s a big problem that I want to make you guys aware of. Six and a half million kids die each year due to infectious diseases. These are diseases that you and I don’t have to worry about in this world, because we have the medicine. We are privileged enough to have the doctors and the resources to solve these problems. When you guys get sick, people can take care of you.

Michelle Khine:

In these developing countries, these kids don’t have this access, so we need to be able to catch these infectious diseases so we can detect them. So why is smaller better? Well, smaller is better for many reasons, right? You guys are small. Smaller is better. Think about the way bugs can walk on water, and we can’t. And bugs are much bigger than the things that we’re looking at, a million times bigger than the technologies that I’m talking about. So the physics is completely different at the small scale. Bugs can walk on water because of surface tension. The ratio between the inertial forces, the body forces, and the surface tension is very different than you are I.

Michelle Khine:

Okay, so what I do in my lab, I said that all these microchips are typically made with traditional semiconductor manufacturing equipment, right? And it’s difficult and expensive. The way you do this is you take light and you try to focus it to pattern it down, to make it really, really high resolution. And that’s hard and expensive to do. And what happens if you don’t have access to doing that? And this, I realized when I started my first job as a professor, because this is what a university usually looks like. My first university job, I was starting at a brand new university and my university looked like this. So I stared at the cows for awhile. I asked them if they could do microfabrication. They couldn’t. And so I started getting a little worried. I couldn’t make my chips, so I couldn’t do my job. So what do you do?

Michelle Khine:

So, I had this idea that if you could pattern at the large scale and then shrink everything down to the small scale, you can get away from having to use any of those big machines and those big labs to make your chips, because you can just pattern at the large scale, which is very easy to do. You can color on it, or you can stick it in a printer, and that technology exists really easily. So can I get a couple of volunteers to help make some microchips?

Michelle Khine:

So Rachel is going to get them going on making some of these Shrinky Dinks. And I’m going to tell you a little bit about what you can do with these Shrinky Dinks. So, I did this. I made some microfluidic chips, these little chips for diagnostics, and as a scientist, you publish your work, so I submitted it to the top journal in my field, and I called it Shrinky Dink microfluidics, and the paper went viral. And so the editor of the journal, it’s owned by the Royal Society of Chemistry, they own like 10 journals. And they said they’ve never seen anything like this. We had more downloads by about 10,000 than all the other journals that they’ve had. And then a couple of months later, the CEO of Shrinky Dinks called me up, and she says, “I don’t know what’s going on. All these labs are buying boxes and boxes of Shrinky Dinks.”

Michelle Khine:

So since then, we’ve developed this technology a little bit more. We’ve actually have a film that shrinks more than Shrinky Dinks, and with this we’ve made what I like to call a tree of different innovations, in three main areas. We do microfluidics. We do molecular diagnostics for point of care, and we do some STEM cell technology work. To highlight a few of our projects, we can make flexible electronics so we can make electronics that can just go on your skin so you can monitor your health. We can make nanotechnologies that give us enhanced signals, so it’s easier to detect, and we can make really fun surfaces.

Michelle Khine:

This is a super hydrophobic surface. So this surface doesn’t wet. So bacteria doesn’t grow on this surface. So while this is running, let’s check back in on our little assistants. How are you guys doing? How are the research assistants doing? Okay, should we try shrinking these in real time? Okay. So what the Shrinky Dinks are, it’s a polystyrene plastic. So imagine it’s like a big rubber band that you stretch out, that’s pulled out, and you put something on it. And then when you let it relax, it goes back to its lowest energy state, it’s natural state. And so we can watch this. You can see it shrinking now.

Michelle Khine:

So you can put different materials on there. We put down gold, silver, carbon nanotubes, graphene. We can put down all different types of materials on this plastic, and then shrink them down afterwards.

Michelle Khine:

It’s not always easy. It really feels like a Cinderella story. When I started this, it was really hard. My students didn’t want to go to conferences to present with a toy. They said people would laugh at them, but we stuck at it, and we’ve gotten a lot of really nice recognition over the years for a variety of different groups, including MIT, and Oprah, and Marie Claire magazine. And so I encourage you guys to play and to dream and to think of things, and when it gets tough, just keep at it, because science is really fun. And so I think I have the best job in the world, because I get to play for a living. I mean, don’t tell my boss, but if I didn’t get paid, I’d still do what I do, every day.

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COOL JOBS: NANO EXAMINER

Using the Shrinky Dinks toy as inspiration, biomedical engineer Michelle Khine invented a way to shrink lab testing materials and equipment, resulting in increased testing speed and reliability while lowering costs.

Episode filmed live at the 2013 World Science Festival in New York CIty. Episode filmed live at the 2014 World Science Festival in New York CIty. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.

Transcription

Michelle Khine:

I am really excited to be back here. You know why I’m excited to be here today? You guys are the best audience in a world. Yeah? I’ve given talks on five continents, and I know you guys are the best audience. You know why?

Audience:

Why?

Michelle Khine:

How many New York City kids are there in the audience? Stand up if you’re a New York City kid. Let’s hear it for New York City kids! I’m a New York City kid. So it is great. It is really amazing to be home, to come home, to share with you why I love science, and to tell you a little bit about how I fell in love with science, and what I do for a living, and why I think I have the best job in the world.

Michelle Khine:

So I am a biomedical engineering professor. I think most people think professors teach all the time, just like the way your teachers do in elementary school. And we do teach, but that’s actually a small portion of what we do. The other things that we do is we do primarily research, and we also travel a lot. We travel around the world. We go to conferences all over the world to meet with collaborators and other scientists who are working on similar projects so that we can work together as one big community. And I’ve also been very privileged to get to go to really exciting places for my research. I’ve gone to Kenya. Those are the baby elephants in Kenya. I’ve gone to Australia, the Koala in Australia. You notice a theme in all of my pictures. I like little animals.

Michelle Khine:

And so you get to do a lot of exciting things. But the primary thing that I do is research, and somebody shouted out experiments. So that’s part of what I do as a researcher, as a biomedical engineer. Who knows what a biomedical engineer does? Do you have your hand up? I design things. Yes, I’m a designer. I design things. Some biomedical engineers design things like prosthetic arms for people who don’t have an arm. Other people design organs, so we grow heart tissue in my lab. So you get to do all different types of things as a biomedical engineer.

Michelle Khine:

Some biomedical engineers work at companies and others work at universities. So I’m very lucky to work at a university. And I have one very simple definition of what research is. Research is play. Who here likes to play? Is there really any hands that are not up there? Every hand. Is there a Grinch out there who doesn’t like to play? Oh, come on now, those hands should be up there, too, right? Don’t you love to play? Yay!

Michelle Khine:

So everyone can be a scientist. And I realized this. I learned this at a young age. I was very lucky, because my mom was a chemist, and I was a very shy, awkward, nerdy kid. And my favorite time was sitting in the kitchen, building things, and doing science experiments with my mom, or collecting specimens with my brother in the neighborhood and bringing them back to examine. And I wasn’t good at math and science in school, growing up. Science is about playing. It’s about embracing uncertainty, and loving that, and figuring out how things work, and loving life, and looking at things and wondering, and having that wonderment, and not having the right answer, because as a professional scientist, we don’t have the right answers. We know that we don’t know. And that’s great, because that gives us something to do. It gives us something to figure out.

Michelle Khine:

So these are pictures of, every time I come up with a new idea, I try to go into lab to try to figure it out. My students love to take pictures of me in lab, because they say I look like a mad scientist. There’s usually smoke all around me. And I’m an inventor. So I’ve invented things over the years. So this was a human powered vehicle that we built when I was a student at Berkeley. So it looks like a plane without wings, right? It’s a fully [inaudible 00:04:19] carbon fiber bike. It’s a tandem bike. So the back person rides backward and the front person rides forward, and there’s actually two different gear chains. And we won several world speed records with this. And I actually was the woman rider for the woman’s world speed record with this bike.

Michelle Khine:

But I’m really here today to tell you about my research. So, as one very smart gentleman said in the audience, I make things small. The field that I work on, it’s called lab on a chip, and it pretty much piggybacks off the semiconductor industry. So how you make computer chips, all the chips that are in your iPads and your computers and your phones, that’s how you make it. You work in this big lab. It’s called a clean room. Have you guys see in the Intel Inside commercials? Yeah, where they wear those big bunny suits, and they make these wafers. So that’s how you make microchips. And I make microchips, but my microchips are a little bit different.

Michelle Khine:

Instead of making, making microchips for computers, I make microchips for diagnostics. So the idea behind this is up here is a picture of a lab. So if you go into any lab right now, this is what it’ll look like. And we are trying to shrink everything down so it’s small, so you can put everything on a small scale. And you might think that this is crazy and farfetched, and why would you want to do this?

Michelle Khine:

So imagine how great it would be is if the next time you’re sick, you can go to the pharmacy, you can go to Walgreens, and pick up a little chip that you spit on, and then you’ll know if you can take the day off from school. You’ll know what medication to take. How awesome would that be? And there’s a bigger problem. There’s a big problem that I want to make you guys aware of. Six and a half million kids die each year due to infectious diseases. These are diseases that you and I don’t have to worry about in this world, because we have the medicine. We are privileged enough to have the doctors and the resources to solve these problems. When you guys get sick, people can take care of you.

Michelle Khine:

In these developing countries, these kids don’t have this access, so we need to be able to catch these infectious diseases so we can detect them. So why is smaller better? Well, smaller is better for many reasons, right? You guys are small. Smaller is better. Think about the way bugs can walk on water, and we can’t. And bugs are much bigger than the things that we’re looking at, a million times bigger than the technologies that I’m talking about. So the physics is completely different at the small scale. Bugs can walk on water because of surface tension. The ratio between the inertial forces, the body forces, and the surface tension is very different than you are I.

Michelle Khine:

Okay, so what I do in my lab, I said that all these microchips are typically made with traditional semiconductor manufacturing equipment, right? And it’s difficult and expensive. The way you do this is you take light and you try to focus it to pattern it down, to make it really, really high resolution. And that’s hard and expensive to do. And what happens if you don’t have access to doing that? And this, I realized when I started my first job as a professor, because this is what a university usually looks like. My first university job, I was starting at a brand new university and my university looked like this. So I stared at the cows for awhile. I asked them if they could do microfabrication. They couldn’t. And so I started getting a little worried. I couldn’t make my chips, so I couldn’t do my job. So what do you do?

Michelle Khine:

So, I had this idea that if you could pattern at the large scale and then shrink everything down to the small scale, you can get away from having to use any of those big machines and those big labs to make your chips, because you can just pattern at the large scale, which is very easy to do. You can color on it, or you can stick it in a printer, and that technology exists really easily. So can I get a couple of volunteers to help make some microchips?

Michelle Khine:

So Rachel is going to get them going on making some of these Shrinky Dinks. And I’m going to tell you a little bit about what you can do with these Shrinky Dinks. So, I did this. I made some microfluidic chips, these little chips for diagnostics, and as a scientist, you publish your work, so I submitted it to the top journal in my field, and I called it Shrinky Dink microfluidics, and the paper went viral. And so the editor of the journal, it’s owned by the Royal Society of Chemistry, they own like 10 journals. And they said they’ve never seen anything like this. We had more downloads by about 10,000 than all the other journals that they’ve had. And then a couple of months later, the CEO of Shrinky Dinks called me up, and she says, “I don’t know what’s going on. All these labs are buying boxes and boxes of Shrinky Dinks.”

Michelle Khine:

So since then, we’ve developed this technology a little bit more. We’ve actually have a film that shrinks more than Shrinky Dinks, and with this we’ve made what I like to call a tree of different innovations, in three main areas. We do microfluidics. We do molecular diagnostics for point of care, and we do some STEM cell technology work. To highlight a few of our projects, we can make flexible electronics so we can make electronics that can just go on your skin so you can monitor your health. We can make nanotechnologies that give us enhanced signals, so it’s easier to detect, and we can make really fun surfaces.

Michelle Khine:

This is a super hydrophobic surface. So this surface doesn’t wet. So bacteria doesn’t grow on this surface. So while this is running, let’s check back in on our little assistants. How are you guys doing? How are the research assistants doing? Okay, should we try shrinking these in real time? Okay. So what the Shrinky Dinks are, it’s a polystyrene plastic. So imagine it’s like a big rubber band that you stretch out, that’s pulled out, and you put something on it. And then when you let it relax, it goes back to its lowest energy state, it’s natural state. And so we can watch this. You can see it shrinking now.

Michelle Khine:

So you can put different materials on there. We put down gold, silver, carbon nanotubes, graphene. We can put down all different types of materials on this plastic, and then shrink them down afterwards.

Michelle Khine:

It’s not always easy. It really feels like a Cinderella story. When I started this, it was really hard. My students didn’t want to go to conferences to present with a toy. They said people would laugh at them, but we stuck at it, and we’ve gotten a lot of really nice recognition over the years for a variety of different groups, including MIT, and Oprah, and Marie Claire magazine. And so I encourage you guys to play and to dream and to think of things, and when it gets tough, just keep at it, because science is really fun. And so I think I have the best job in the world, because I get to play for a living. I mean, don’t tell my boss, but if I didn’t get paid, I’d still do what I do, every day.