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Research Opportunity Takes Trio to Notre Dame

August 1, 2019

For two months this summer, a Fisher faculty and student trio were deep in lab work and research in the Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering Department at the University of Notre Dame, thanks to funding provided by the College’s Center for Student Research and Creative Work as well as the University Radiation Medicine Foundation.

Alex Martinez and Fabio Sacco presented their projects to the members of the Zartman Laboratory as soon as they arrived, and presented their results before leaving.

Under the supervision of faculty mentor Dr. Fernando Ontiveros, associate professor of biology, and in the laboratory of Dr. Jeremiah Zartman, associate professor at Notre Dame, rising biology seniors Alex Martinez and Fabio Sacco researched the design and fabrication of innovative microfluidic devices, an extension of Ontiveros’ work and a technique he developed in the Loss Laboratory at Fisher. They used this technology to work on the development of several devices, including one that aims to separate circulating tumor cells, and one used to image and study fly embryo development.

In 2017, Ontiveros was invited to give a seminar and workshop to the department at Notre Dame so they could learn more about his methodology related to microfluidics.  A year later, he was invited to spend the summer as a visiting professor. This year, as part of his sabbatical leave, he and Zartman received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) which allowed him to spend three months working in Zartman’s laboratory. With the opportunity to return this summer, Ontiveros knew it would be a great experience for students to come along.  

“Since I knew very early that I would be here for the summer, Dr. Kristin Picardo and I thought it would be a good idea to bring summer students, since they get to work in state-of-the-art research facilities and work next to graduate students and post-docs,” he said.

The aspiring physicians presented their projects to the members of the Zartman Laboratory as soon as they arrived, and presented their results before leaving. They also had the opportunity to participate in a science outreach event at the prestigious university.

For Sacco, the chance to pursue this research meant that he could apply his learnings from Fisher that could have the potential to change the field of microfluidics. 

“I was particularly interested because no one else is doing this research. In the classroom, we always learn about studies that have changed the world; studies that were performed decades ago and they still hold significance today. This project allowed me to do something that may revolutionize the field of science,” he said.

His project specifically was to build a mechanical loading device that could influence the development of a model organism. It took him over one month and close to 100 attempts at make the device suitable for its function, an often frustrating process for any researcher. He said he has learned about more than just microfluidics, and that persistence–and patience–are key.

“Through this experience, I have learned patience and openness. As a researcher, not everything works out the way I want it. Sometimes I would make a device that seemed to work, but it was still missing critical qualities so I had to return to square one and modify my design,” he said.

Rising biology seniors Alex Martinez and Fabio Sacco at the University of Notre Dame.

The project appealed to Martinez because it combines both biology and engineering, and he is interested in building devices that could have an impact on a global scale; in both advanced and developing countries.

“I wanted to challenge myself and explore a new field in science. I thought the whole process of collaborating with a professor was quite neat and it really sparked my interest,” said Martinez.

Like Sacco, he said he is also learning that things don’t always work the first time.

“One thing I am for sure learning is that things aren’t going to work the first time. By retracing my steps and dissecting the issue at hand, I learned that one must be resilient with research in order to accomplish any type of goal they have,” he said.

Martinez is looking ahead knowing that his time spent in the lab, with his peers and faculty experts, will bode well for him as he explores his life after Fisher.

This experience will help me move closer to those goals by allowing me to collaborate with professionals. It will also help prove to medical schools that I can handle an issue professionally and come up with a valuable solution,” he said.

In Ontiveros’ view, the benefits of these experiences for students are priceless.

“Students get to conduct scientific research independently, to think carefully about a problem and work on innovative solutions. Working at Notre Dame, they experience the environment of a top-tier research institution, working in laboratories where cutting-edge research takes place every day,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised by the student’s commitment to the work we do.  They are driven and smart, I think they left a great impression here. Fisher can be proud of them.”