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Science at play: The Khine Lab at UCI

2013-09-30 08:45:31
The Khine research lab at UC Irvine invents cool tools for the medical
industry by playing around.
Biomedical engineer Michelle Khine, who designs medical diagnostic
microchips that can be used to analyze cells, is an advocate of play. It
was the theme of her recent TEDxUCIrvine talk.
By playing we can learn, she said. We play music, we play tennis,
we play sports. Why can't we play science?
By playing around experimenting and thinking creatively,
embracing uncertainty and simply having fun the lab inadvertently came up with anti-wetting super-
hydrophobic surfaces that are resistant to blood and water.
The Khine lab website has a video of a water droplet literally bouncing off the surface and rolling away.
It's a work-hard, play-hard kind of lab, said Natasha Felsinger, who has worked in the lab for a year.
Felsinger recently graduated with a bachelor's in biomedical engineering but resumed work in the Khine
lab this fall on her way to a master's degree.
Everyone is constantly trying different and new things in the lab. It's very creative, Felsinger said.
The Khine lab also invented 3-D surfaces that have microsized pits, which are useful tools for researchers
who need uniform cultures of stem cells or tumor cells.
Flexible, wearable electronic health monitors, made of thin plastics that conform to your body, as opposed
to hard silicon wafer electronics, are another Khine lab venture.
Khine's research field is informally known as lab on a chip. Its future, Khine said, is spitting on a chip that
was purchased at a pharmacy and receiving vital information about your health.
You can't talk about Michelle Khine without mentioning Shrinky Dinks, those art-and-craft activity kits that
shrink pictures drawn on flexible plastic sheets when heated in an oven. Shrinky Dinks have been around
since the 1970s, and Khine counts it as one of her favorite childhood activities.
Before coming to UCI in 2009, Khine grabbed headlines for playing with Shrinky Dinks in her lab at UC
Merced. It was there, as a young, junior professor, that she realized that advancing her research was a
matter of publish or perish.
I decided to go back to basics, she said.
She made complex designs using 3-D design software, printed them on thermoplastic Shrinky Dinks
sheets with a laser-jet printer and heated them in a toaster oven to create a microfluidic tool to
manipulate cells in tiny amounts of fluids for diagnostic purposes.
All I wanted to do is make a poor man's version of the silicon wafer.
Her Shrinky Dinks research was published in 2008 in The Royal Society of Chemistry Journal's Lab on a
Chip, a prestigious science journal.
The paper went viral, and Khine was lauded as an innovator in publications such as Wired, Fast Company,
Business Insider, Scientific American, Genome Technology and MIT Technology Review.
She was even featured in women's magazines such as Marie Claire and O, The Oprah Magazine.
Her Shrinky Dinks work was one of the things that helped her land a research and teaching job at UCI. My
research picked up so other schools started coming around.
Khine's lab still uses the plastic-shrinking method to make microfluidic diagnostic tools.
We pattern everything very inexpensively at the large scale and shrink everything down afterward.
Khine originally got into science because of her mother.
My mom's a fantastic role model. She's the one who turned me to love science.
Her mother was a chemist, but wanted to be an engineer.
They didn't allow women to be engineers, Khine said. She was supposed to take mechanical drafting in
high school and they told her No, girls don't take that.'
Her mother didn't qualify for engineering when she went to college, so she took chemistry.
Khine's mother was inspired by Khine's grandfather, who was an engineer. He pushed his girls. My aunt is
a physician. Girls need role models, she said.
I was lucky I had good strong role models growing up.
Khine's mother was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, which has motivated Khine to find a way to
conduct Alzheimer's research in her lab. We can chase down different diseases because we make tools.
UC Irvine biomedical engineer Michelle Khine, a self-described geek who quotes Yoda on her website, has
an entrepreneurial bent.
Khine has launched several startup ventures in her career, including her most recent, A Hundred Tiny
Hands, which sells educational science kits for schools.
She understands the power of the market and its ability to bring resources together to execute exciting
ideas, said Charlie Baecker, administrative director at The Don Beall Center for Innovation and
Entrepreneurship at UCI's business school.
Khine worked with the business school and UCI's engineering school to develop BioEngineering,
Innovation & Entrepreneurship, or BioEngine, a graduate program that helps students design a medical
device and take it to market.
The program launches this year.
BioEngine is unique in that students would have not only a working prototype but also a startup business
by the time they finish their master's degree program.
Today, product designs have shorter lifecycles six to nine months which means engineers need to be
nimble and savvy about business, Baecker said.
You really have to have your fingers in the marketing pie to know if your product is attractive to
customers, he said. That's something that's not taught at engineering schools, he said.
Our graduates want to move up the ladder, Baecker said. They want engineering skills plus business
skills. You really need a business sense in order to survive.
Students will develop a medical device prototype, put together a team, apply for grants and write a
business plan.
We take the risk out of doing a startup, Khine said. If it doesn't work, they walk away with a master's. If it
works, they have a startup when they graduate.
Michelle Khine
Associate professor of biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and materials science at The Henry
Samueli Schoolof Engineering at UC Irvine.
Education: Ph.D. in bioengineering, UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley (2005); M.S. in mechanical
engineering, UC Berkeley (2001); B.S. in mechanical engineering, UC Berkeley (1999).
Research areas: Stem cells, molecular diagnostics and microfluidics, which is the study of fluids at the
micro level.
Career: Before coming to UCI, Khine was assistant and founding professor at UC Merced from 2006 to
Startups: Novoheart, a Hong Kong-based cardiotoxicity screening company; A Hundred Tiny Hands,
which sells educational science kits for schools; Shrink Nanotechnologies Inc., the first startup company
from UC Merced, spun out of the research developed in Khine's lab; co-founder of Fluxion Biosciences Inc.
Offcampus activities: Tennis, AcroYoga (acrobatics and yoga), and being Big Sister for Big Brothers Big
Khine Lab dog: A "micro lab."
Khine Lab website:
Recent speaking gig: "Cool Jobs" at the World Science Festival in New York City. "I have the best job in
the world because I get to play for a living." Video: worldsciencefestival
Accolades: "Top Scientist" in the 2011 Women on Top Awards by Marie Claire magazine; Fast Company
magazine named her one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" in 2011.
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