THE ART OF MICROFLUIDICS
by Alan S. Brown, Associate Editor
Albert Folch sees the art in what other scientists might consider the everyday part of the job. As an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, he has always insisted that his students appreciate the particularly compelling and beautiful images they view through their microscopes.
Now he has created an online gallery of his own microscopic images, writ large. And others obviously share his enthusiasm. The gallery has logged more than 5,000 visitors since Folch started it in late 2007. It can be accessed at http://picasaweb.google.com/albertfolch.
Folch works in microfluidics, the study of liquids at scales smaller than a millimeter. His techniques may someday be used to build pocket-size diagnostic tools. He's also working now to understand how olfaction—the sense of smell— actually functions. As part of the work, he and his students manipulate electrons and liquids at the microscopic scale.
In microfluidics, all data is obtained in the form of images. To test their methods, scientists run colored dyes through tiny machines or grow single cells on sheets of plastic and then photograph the results. Many of the pictures are strangely alluring, Folch said. Straining is done with food dye.
"Those pretty pictures are created from food coloring, like what they use for cakes," Folch said.
1. Fluids shoot through tiny valves to create a rectangular area.
2. Muscle cells after one week of growth, when they start to fuse.
3. Researchers open the valves on the left side to select fluid combinations (here, all are opened).
4. Liver cells (blue) grown atop an electrical circuit (yellow) on a sheet of glass (pink).
Until recently, only a 250-gigabyte hard drive in his office held the best of the research images accumulated during his degree work at the University of Barcelona, and postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. No one else was likely to view the pictures or catch Folch's enthusiasm.
But when that hard drive crashed last year, Folch realized exactly what he had the potential to lose: crimson geometric shapes twisting around on a white background; colored pyramids surrounding a central rainbow; an eerie reddish landscape Folch called "Microstructures on Mars"; and a spiraling pattern he captioned "Van Gogh's Cells."
From the computer crash sprang the impetus to share his images with others, he said.
He uploaded nearly 1,000 images to an external Web page to alleviate his fears of another computer crash and to allow viewers ready access to the site. The site currently includes more than 1,000 high-resolution images and about 50 videos. Most of the images have never been seen before. A typical journal article, he said, might show three or four color images among the hundreds or thousands of possibilities. And some of the images are unsuccessful attempts that will never qualify for a scientific journal.
"We don't publish but a tiny bit of what we do, but some of those failed experiments are just as beautiful as anything we do," he said. "It's a little like deep-ocean photos or pictures of outer space. Images of the microscopic world are just intriguing, because this realm is outside the reach of the human eye.
Throughout his entire career spent peering through microscopes he's never lost his artistic eye.
"I've always seen it as art," he said. "My parents were good friends with a lot of artists. I've always liked art in general and photography."
Owners of an art gallery have approached him about showing his images at the gallery, although he remains unsure. Mounting them would be quite an expense. But he's certain to remain committed to his online gallery.
"The gallery is more popular than my research," he said. "But it's very rewarding because I like the aesthetic part as much as the science, to tell you the truth.
"I often log into the gallery myself and I have some images rotating in my computer a lot of times," he added. "I find them very beautiful. I never get tired of them."