Chris Axline ’12

Chris Axline grew up in a family steeped in physics, so it’s no surprise he chose to major in physics at UCSB. But his experiences with research as an undergraduate helped him decide early on to pursue research and academia rather than work in the industrial world, which is where both his physicist parents are employed.

His parents have always encouraged him to pursue his own interests, Chris says, adding “I’d much rather be doing research.”

Chris was exposed to research through the Summer Institute in Mathematics and Science program the summer before he entered UCSB as a student. SIMS is a two-week science-intensive residential program hosted by the California NanoSystems Institute at UCSB. Because of that experience, he won funding to do research in physics Professor Andrew Cleland’s lab during the second quarter of his freshman year, and then received a UC Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees grant to do research the following summer.

Chris is building on Professor Cleland’s work on microfluidic biosensors, an electronically based process to detect cells or other small particles in a saline solution. “Using this intrinsically very high bandwidth technique, we can detect and count individual cells (e.g. HeLa tumor cells) passing through a single sensor at rates up to one million cells per second,” Cleland explains on his website.

Using this microfluidic system, Chris has developed a tiny sorting device – a prototype small as a fingernail – which ultimately will be able to determine whether there are antibodies or diseased cells present in the blood.

Given that most cell-sorting machines are the size of an entire room, this new device would revolutionize the practice of medicine and medical testing, particularly in remote regions of the world, Chris says.

Previously, blood would have to be drawn and sent to a lab for testing. If one wanted to identify specific particles, it would take a large laser. With this new tiny device, electrodes on a thin wafer replace the bulky laser. Blood can be tested on site and particles can be sorted for further manipulation. Diagnosis of disease could be done very quickly and in the field.

Chris hopes to continue his work in Professor Cleland’s lab during his senior year. But first he will do a summer internship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado.

Ultimately, he plans to get his Ph.D. from UCSB and continue research in microfluidic biosensors.