Microfluidic mixing chips are used by scientists to analyze biological molecules. They have small channels in which biological solutions, usually solutions of protein, are mixed. Biological small angle x-ray solution scattering (BioSAXS) is then used to study how these biomolecules change under different conditions, for example when they mix with hormones and drugs or when they interact with other biomolecules. These observations can help further our understanding of how cells function.
“How living cells actually operate is still far from understood,” says Richard Gillilan, Flynn’s mentor. “They are very much like huge cities with millions - even billions - of moving parts.”
With the intention of opening a door to the inner workings of cells, Flynn and Gillilan are continuing the work of Gillilan’s former postdoctoral student, Jesse Hopkins, who started a project on microfluidic chips more than two years ago. Hopkins was working on fabricating chips that could be used to observe molecular interactions and structural changes on a millisecond scale.
While Hopkins successfully designed almost every aspect of the chip, he was unable to get the final x-ray transparent window fixed on the chip without it leaking. Flynn’s main task over the summer is to resolve this. He creates chips in the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility (CNF), using techniques including photolithography and lamination. The chips have different layers, the faulty transparent window being in one of the last. After the first few layers of the chips are made, Flynn uses them to investigate different possibilities for the window. He expects to test these windows by pumping liquids through the chips, and if they have been fit successfully, to compare any results to computer simulations that Hopkins had developed.
Currently, BioSAXS on millisecond timescales is not used extensively around the world, since it can only be carried out by specialists due to its complexity. Hopkins’ design, which Flynn is improving, makes it more accessible to other researchers as it’s more automatic and simpler to work with. “Once more scientific research groups are able to do these kinds of experiments, it will really help them with this new aspect of molecular biology that we don’t have very much data on,” says Gillilan.
Once CHESS starts running again, Gillilan expects to have interested researchers using the new chips to analyze their samples, which will help them determine if the chips function appropriately. He also intends to write a research paper detailing these results and the production of the chips.
Being involved in this research is providing Flynn with some very specific skills that he could find extremely useful in the future. He has undergone training for CNF’s clean room and has learned to use its equipment. “[The project] is helping me get more interested in micro- and nanofabrication,” he says. “I’ve done some of that in the past at my home university, and I’ve always been interested in getting into it.” Additionally, he is gaining experience in simulation programs and the scientific linux operating system, and learning some related chemical and biological topics he might never have studied otherwise.
At Fort Lewis, Flynn has worked on modelling electron field emission from porous silicon. For his career, he wants to pursue research in nanofabrication or accelerator physics.