Photo: Photo courtesy of Michelle Khine
This is part of our series on the Sexiest Scientists Alive.
Shrinky Dinks, the flexible plastic sheets that shrink dramatically when heated but maintain their shape and colour, reached the peak of their popularity in the 1980s.
Many children from that era grew up using the cheap art supply (which is actually just a sheet of special plastic) in craft projects. But now Dr. Michelle Khine, of the University of California, Irvine, is using the plastic sheets to make microfluidic devices which can help diagnose medical problems using small amounts of body fluids.
Khine is a biomedical engineer who hopes her Shrinky Dinks could help improve substandard health care in the developing world — a largely economic problem. She thinks the craft supply can produce medical testing devices at a fraction of the cost of comparable products.
Creating these products at such low cost will enable their widespread use, allowing for earlier detection of preventable and treatable illnesses that often go undiagnosed and untreated in the developing world.
Using Shrinky Dinks also allows her to cut down production time for these tests from weeks to minutes. This helps her develop a cheaper product faster, especially when she wants to make design changes.
Using Shrink Dinks, she doesn’t have to wait weeks for a new shipment of devices from a manufacturer. She can immediately make them herself by printing out designs and baking them in the oven in her lab.The Shrinky Dink solution is just one way this analytical problem solver spurs innovation within the medical device field. She is also creating a graduate program at UC Irvine that will develop entrepreneurs.
We spoke to Khine about bioengineering, microfluidic devices, and how she juggles her time between the lab, academia, and her personal life.
Business Insider: How would you explain biomedical engineering to a non-scientist?
Michelle Khine: It’s a relatively new field where we invent devices and technologies to improve human health.
BI: What specifically is a microfluidic device?
MK: It is analogous to a computer chip, except instead of it working with electronics, it uses fluids at very small scales. Using small samples of bodily fluids like blood and saliva, we can get a lot of different information about someone’s health.
BI: You mentioned that the chips can be used to detect diseases in third world countries. What draws you to these applications? Have you been to these places?
MK: When I was a graduate student I heard a statistic that about 20 per cent of the world lives on less than $1 per day. A lot of diseases that are killing babies and children in the developing world are completely preventable. They are just not diagnosed or not diagnosed in time. I recently got to go to Kenya which was an enlightening experience as well.
BI: What do you hope to accomplish with your work?
MK: My personal goal is to roll out low cost point-of-care devices for the developing world. It can’t be about the business. It has to be about enough people being passionate about developing devices that are affordable. We have an economic problem in the developing world. The technology exists, but it cannot be produced inexpensively enough where it can be rolled out into these areas, and I want to fix that.
BI: Tell me about your new graduate program at UC Irvine.
MK: I want to invent medical device inventors. We are trying to develop the framework and infrastructure to create entrepreneurs, and to give them the support they need through a graduate program.
BI: How did you get interested in biomedical engineering?
MK: I did a high school BME program at a local college and found it really interesting. But most schools didn’t even have it as a major. I studied mechanical engineering in undergrad and always thought I would go to medical school, but then I fell in love with research. As a doctor you can treat and help one patient at a time, but if you invent a product or device, you can help thousands of people.
BI: You told the MIT Technology Review that you are a “very impatient person.” How has that impacted your life as a scientist considering that research is usually a time-consuming process?
MK: One of the reasons for coming up with the Shrinky Dinks idea is because I’m impatient. Normally you would have to wait weeks to get similar devices. Now we can make them in a couple of minutes. We can also quickly adapt and come up with a new design in minutes instead of starting a long process over from scratch. I also get impatient waiting on projects, so I end up running a bunch of projects at once.
BI: So what are those other projects?
MK: We are making super-hydrophobic surfaces. They also have anti-bacterial applications. We’re also interested in flexible electronics and hope to move into wearable electronics soon.
BI: You are also starting a new company.
MK: Its called Novoheart and I’m working with collaborators from Mt. Sinai Medical School. We’re developing drug toxicity screens. All the pharmaceutical compounds that are coming down a pipeline have to be tested for various adverse cardiac side effects. My lab has been working on differentiating stem cells into heart cells and we have created structures to do that. With our collaborators we have come up with a platform to perform efficient, high-content drug screens.
BI: You mentioned to Berkeley’s Innovation Newsletter that you never thought you would go into academia. What made you change your mind?
MK: My PhD advisor was my mentor and he called me into his office one day right before I was going to graduate. He said, “I think you should be a professor.” I didn’t think I was smart enough to be a professor but he thought I would be good at it. He told me to try it out and if I didn’t get any job offers, he would stop bugging me. So I basically did it to get him off my back. I’m really glad I listened to his advice. I tell my students that sometimes someone else sees something in you that you don’t see yourself.
BI: What challenges have you faced as a woman in the male dominated environment that is engineering?
MK: I think you have an added responsibility to be a good role model. I get a lot of emails from girls interested in going into science and engineering and you have to prove that you are getting there not because you are a woman or because you are riding anything else, but because you are just as good, if not better, than the guys in the field. You have to be uncompromising with the quality of your work.
BI: So aside from working with your lab, starting graduate programs and companies, and mentoring female science students, do you have any time left for non-science related hobbies?
MK: I play tennis and I like Acroyogo, which is two person yoga. I also enjoy spending time with my dog. We also do a lot of sports activities with my lab, like kickball and dodgeball tournaments.
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