In the iconic Star Trek franchise, medical personnel often utilized a small hand-held device to “scan” crew members for potential illnesses, infections and other maladies. By aiming the device at the individual and working from head to toe, the practitioners often knew exactly what was wrong with the patient within a few seconds. But those are just creative inventions born from science fiction, right?
Not necessarily, according to Dr. Christine Trinkle, professor of mechanical engineering at UK, who believes such a device is within reach.
“Hand-held diagnostics is one of the main applications for micro-fluidics,” says Dr. Trinkle, “With such a device, you could be scanned for everything from diabetes to anemia to cancer, within a couple of seconds, by taking a really small sample of blood.”
Micro-fluidics and micro-scale design and fabrication are just two areas of Dr. Trinkle’s expertise. “The idea is that when you get to the micro and nano scale, the relative impact of the physics changes. As large-scale creatures, gravity influences a lot of what goes on in our world. For instance, on the micro and nano scale, gravity is negligible, whereas surface tension and electromagnetic forces—factors that are negligible to us—dominate on the smaller scales.” The difference in scale creates the possibility to obtain information using miniscule amounts of material. “You can actually take a droplet of blood and split it off into 100 different samples from which you can get information,” explained Dr. Trinkle. “Things we can do on a small scale are impossible on a larger scale.”
Although Dr. Trinkle conducts research on biomedical applications, she considers herself first and foremost a mechanical engineer, a designation which originated in her parents’ tool and die shop as a teenager. As she learned how to use the different machines and integrate new technology into the shop, she developed a love for mechanical engineering. “My mom is incredibly intelligent and likes to solve puzzles,” states Dr. Trinkle, “and my dad was always very hands-on and liked to build things. If you think about mechanical engineering, it’s really the perfect marriage of those two ideas: solving puzzles and building things.”
Dr. Trinkle obtained B.S. and M.S. degrees in mechanical engineering right here at UK, but it wasn’t until she was pursuing her Ph.D at Cal-Berkeley that she began to see the shape of her future research. She recalls, “When I went to Berkeley, my interest wasn’t on the biological side, but one day I decided to grab some coffee and head to a talk with some friends. It was on the interface between the mechanical engineering side and the needs in the medical, pharmaceutical and biological areas. I remember sitting in this talk and thinking, ‘This is amazing! This is such an interesting and unique part of mechanical engineering that I had never seen before and had never guessed was there.’”
Combining mechanical engineering principles with biomedical applications is what chiefly occupies Dr. Trinkle’s research and imagination these days. “I would like to be in the hospitals, doing rounds with the doctors, asking, ‘What do you wish you could have? What information do you need about this patient right now that you can’t get?’ And then figure out how to get it for them.”
Although Dr. Trinkle’s passion for her research is evident, she displays equal enthusiasm for her role as a teacher. “One of my favorite things is seeing students transition from engineering students to engineers,” she says. “Engineers have a different mental construct and look at the world in a slightly different way. During their time in the program, students begin to take on this curiosity about how the world works. That’s always fun to watch.