Interview with Albert Folch: Beautiful Microfluidics

Albert Folch received his BSc in physics from the University of Barcelona (UB), Spain, in 1989. In 1994, he received his Ph.D. in surface science and nanotechnology from the UB’s Physics Dept. During his Ph.D. he was a visiting scientist from 1990–91 at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab working on AFM under Dr. Miquel Salmeron. From 1994–1996, he was a postdoc at MIT developing MEMS under the advice of Martin Schmidt (EECS) and Mark Wrighton (Chemistry). In 1997, he joined the laboratory of Mehmet Toner as a postdoc at Harvard’s Center for Engineering in Medicine to apply soft lithographic methods to tissue engineering. He has been at Seattle’s UW BioE since June 2000 where he is now a full Professor, accumulating over 6,700 citations (averaging >82 citations/paper over his whole career). His lab works at the interface between microfluidics, cancer, and neurobiology. In 2001 he received an NSF Career Award and in 2014 he was elected to the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) College of Fellows (Class of 2015). He serves on the Advisory Board of Lab on a Chip since 2006. Albert Folch is the author of four books, including “Introduction to BioMEMS”, a textbook now adopted by more than 77 departments in 17 countries (including 40 universities in the U.S. alone). Since 2007, the lab runs a celebrated outreach art program called BAIT (Bringing Art Into Technology) which has produced seven exhibits, a popular resource gallery of >2,000 free images related to microfluidics and microfabrication, and a YouTube channel that plays microfluidic videos with music which accumulates ~133,000 visits since 2009. Professor Folch will be speaking at our upcoming Microfluidics-themed webinar.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing?

Albert: In 2013, my student Anthony Au was having trouble with PDMS molding and I received a brochure from FineLine Prototyping (now Protolabs), which had a picture of a microfluidic device that, it said, was “3D-printed”. I called them up to learn how they did it (“stereolithography”), what material they used (“a resin called Watershed”), and I decided to put my student to explore this avenue. We published a paper on “mail-order microfluidics” in 2014 that has been cited 320 times! We published two review papers in 2016 that have been cited 660 and 530 times.

Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in 3D printing?

Albert: It was really the struggle that my student Anthony was having that made me decide to go on this journey. 3D printing seemed so much more accessible and democratic – it represented the end of the “clean room tyranny”.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing (bio-printing/bio-fabrication)? This can be a mentor, a patient, a celebrity, anyone basically. You can name more than one as well.

Albert: It was a self-discovery in my case!

(Credit: Instagram account

This montage is to celebrate our latest paper in Lab on a Chip (Horowitz et al, Lab Chip 2020)! We developed a process to microdissect live tissue into 400 micron-side “cuboids” which can be trapped in #microfluidic arrays for multiplexed drug treatments. The technique is potentially applicable to the screening of drugs using human tumor biopsies (altogether bypassing animal testing).

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work? 

Albert: Everyday learning (myself and from my students)

Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Albert: For microfluidics, it’s always the properties of the material: we do not have infinite materials to make microfluidics – we only have a few because we have a lot of constraints: biocompatibility, transparency, manufacturability, elasticity, etc. At the end of the constraints list, you are left with only a few.

For cancer, my biggest obstacle is myself – I never seem to know enough about cancer, it’s a vast field with constant discoveries. There is so much to learn! I wish I had the same grasp of cancer as I have of microfluidics.

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Albert: For 3D printing of microfluidics (by stereolithography) in particular, the biggest challenge is finding better resins (we are presently limited to acrylates due to speed) that yield both high resolution, high transparency, and high biocompatibility – i.e. that can compete with thermoplastic fabrication. Without that, the future of the field is rather somber because rapid advances in CNC micromachining and hot embossing are making thermoplastic microfluidics very prototypable and much more manufacturable.

Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be? 

Albert: A multi-material 3D printer that could quickly print any material at sub-micron resolution!

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore? 

Albert: Follow your heart and keep people excited. Don’t go into over-populated fields simply because the funding agencies put out an RFA – try to be original and stay away from what everyone else is doing.

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