Works and Days

Presidents Summer Fellowship, Nanofluids and Gene Mapping, Abrar Abidi

For his President's Summer Fellowship, Abrar Abidi ’16, physics major is working in a lab at McGill University in Canada, helping to develop new nanofluid technology to improve DNA mapping methods.

A chemist who had close friendships with both Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford was once asked to share his recollections of the two men. In response, he explained:

“[Einstein] always spoke to me of Rutherford in the highest terms, calling him a second Newton. As scientists the two men were contrasting types—Einstein all calculation, Rutherford all experiment… There was no doubt that as an experimenter Rutherford was a genius, one of the greatest. He worked by intuition and everything he touched turned to gold. He had a sixth sense.”

This experimenter with the Midas touch was born and raised in New Zealand, where he spent his youth assisting with manual labor on his family’s farm. At the age of 24, after graduating from the University of Canterbury, he was given a scholarship to Cambridge for postgraduate study. Upon receiving this news, it is said that the young Rutherford, who was at home on the farm at the time, stood up and told his startled mother, “I’ve just dug my last potato.”

Eventually, Rutherford would go on to be called “the father of nuclear physics.” From Cambridge, he moved on to McGill University, where he became a professor, and where he began his landmark studies on radioactivity. This work helped establish the field of atomic physics, and in 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Later, he demonstrated that atoms could be transformed, altered, and split—releasing, in the process, an enormous (even catastrophic) amount of energy. It is perhaps no great wonder then that Ernest Rutherford is considered the greatest experimentalist since Michael Faraday.

This summer, I am working at McGill, where Rutherford’s legacy still suffuses the campus atmosphere. My lab is in a building that bears his name. In the lobby, some of the apparatus that he handcrafted are on full display, brass cylinders and domes and gears, all polished, gleaming, with finely engraved script to mark off detailed measurements. Every morning I wait for the elevator next to his copper bust, beaming exuberance, with his large frame, his big walrus mustache.


My own work here, unlike Rutherford’s, is not concerned with atoms. Under the leadership of Professor Walter Reisner (Reed alumnus '00), I have joined a research group to help pursue new avenues in nanofluidic technology. Walter’s graduate work, done a decade ago at Princeton, described how strands of DNA react when confined within microscopic channels: they elongate, stretching to new and varying lengths depending upon the width of the almost inconceivably tiny chambers in which they are entrapped. This research suggested the potential for mapping DNA more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently than has been possible in the past—which is to say, by using only a single strand of DNA, rather than tens of thousands, as is currently necessary. Such a shift in scale would enable a human genome to be mapped in minutes, as opposed to months.

Walter’s lab at McGill, which he established in 2009, benefits from the cooperative talents of graduate students and postdocs from many scientific backgrounds: physics, bioengineering, materials science, biology, mathematics. In their company, I have been assisting in efforts to determine how we might replace the conventional nanochannels described in Walter’s research with, instead, electrostatic forces—an alteration that could have major ramifications for the field. This would allow us to overcome many of the obstacles inherent to working with the classical nanofluidic model, and my work at the lab has involved creating computer simulations to mimic our preliminary experimental data towards that end. So far, the results have been very encouraging.

Day after day, as I absorb myself in these simulations, I am thrumming with ideas about how we might modify our device’s design to maximize its potential for future applications. I have become intimately familiar with the ways in which electrode geometries produce specific electric field arrangements, thereby interacting with DNA in a controlled fashion. There is much to look forward to in the coming weeks.

This morning, as I left my apartment in the muggy pre-storm heat, I thought again of Rutherford. Ever direct, and ever unapologetic, he once said, “You know, I am sorry for the poor fellows that haven’t got labs to work in.”

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, biology, genetics, gene mapping, research, laboratory