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Nicole Pamme on Paper Microfluidics

At the 3rd Microfluidics Congress: Europe, Nicole Pamme told us about her greatest career achievements and her advice for women in science.

Can you tell us a bit more about your research?

In chemistry, we are developing microfluidic devices to make smart materials for drug delivery in a very precise way and for the safe production of pharmaceuticals for personalised medicine. We are applying such devices for point-of-care diagnostics, for example, to detect urine infection, or to detect bacteria in drinking water. Furthermore, we are applying microfluidics for studying fundamental biology, for example in organ-on-a-chip,  body-on-a-chip, or tissue-on-a-chip systems.

I spoke today about the research we have conducted with paper microfluidic devices made from pieces of filter paper. By dropping liquids on them, the liquid moves through the paper simply by capillary forces, so we don’t need any pumps. We can guide liquid through the paper with wax barriers which can be printed from an office printer. We can fix regents to the paper that react with our analytes of interest and form a coloured reaction with fertilizers that might be present in a water sample.

The colour change can be recorded with a photograph and the colour intensity quantified with an app or computer-based software. This allows us to study many different regulated compounds such as phosphates, nitrates, nutrients or pesticides. The ultimate aim is to use such devices with members of the general public, who could test for themselves the level of compounds found in drinking or river water for large-scale environmental analysis.

What has been the most exciting moment in your scientific career?

Progressing through a career as a researcher is exciting at every step; getting a place to study was exciting, getting a PhD and a Postdoc position was exciting, getting a permanent position as an academic and being promoted was also exciting.

As scientists, we often get really thrilled when we get a grant. It’s so competitive as we have to write so many grants and the vast majority are unsuccessful. When we finally get grant money coming through, it’s really exciting.

I think the most rewarding work is when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, such as presenting at events with schoolchildren or extending a talk to the public. That’s nerve-racking. It’s totally out of my comfort zone. Afterwards, you feel really elated if you think it’s gone well and hasn’t been embarrassing!

Which women inspired your scientific career and why?

I studied chemistry in Germany and there weren’t any female professors at all in chemistry at that University at the time. I think the first time I had ever seen a female chemistry academic was when I did an exchange year in London at Imperial College. In the chemistry department, they had several female academics. I think that showed me that women can do this and it’s not totally exotic to have a career in science. The gender balance in chemistry at PhD level is not too far off, but at professor level, women are still in the vast minority.

The area that I’m working on, microfluidics, is quite multidisciplinary, so there are engineers and chemists, but also many biologists. On the engineering side, there are few women but conversely, on the biology side, women are in the majority. I have been inspired by several.

Senior female academics that have been at the forefront of microfluidics and more and more women are embarking on academic careers. You begin to realize it’s not out of this world to become a successful woman in science.

 

Nicole Pamme is the Director of Research in the School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Hull. Her research is focused on lab-on-a-chip-devices which allow the precise handling of liquids at microscopic scales.

 

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