Imagine working on something that you can barely grasp with your fingers, and then making patterns on them that are on the scale of micrometers – a millionth of a meter.

This was the work Ted Chung, a senior studying biomedical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was doing over this past summer, having been one of the students who won the Summer Undergraduate Research Grant in 2019. His interest in medical devices and biomedical electronics led him to join the Rogers Research Group at Northwestern in the Fall Quarter of his junior year. During the academic year, he could not spend too much time in the lab because of his full course load, and decided to spend the summer doing research of his own research alongside his mentor so that he could learn.

Photo courtesy of Ted Chung

“Our lab is really big, and a lot of people are doing a lot of different things. I was helping my mentor with a bigger project of his, and there wasn’t much time for him to formally teach me everything I needed to know. People are busy and don't have time to really hold my hand through things,” Chung said. “I felt like in order for me to learn, I needed to be spending more time in lab and doing something of my own.” Chung decided to work on his own project, an application of the bigger project his mentor was working on.

The Rogers Research Group studies bioelectronics or biocompatible electronic devices that can either go inside or on the human body. These devices can perform a variety of functions, from working as sensors to measure different values inside the body, or taking vitals such as heart rate or blood pressure. They are significant in that they can be safely implanted into the human body, eliminating the risk of infections when interacting with living tissue. Chung spent the summer with his team learning how to make microelectrode arrays (MEAs), measuring the action potentials of neurons, which, in turn, allow neurons to pass on signals to another. MEAs typically have high resistances, making it difficult to get good signals. To get better signals, they need to coat the devices with a material, and with current technology, the material is not optimal. Given this whitespace, Chung and his mentors proposed a project that would pattern the electrodes with structures. Because resistance is a function of the surface area, increasing the surface area by incorporating structures would, in theory, lower the resistance.

Nanopatterned MEA sample (800 nm nanopillars)

This proved more difficult than anticipated, as Chung went through numerous iterations but did not succeed.

“I made numerous samples and ran into all kinds of problems. I tried to troubleshoot through each one as it came up, but by the end of the grant period, I still didn’t have a working sample,” Chung said. “It was an interesting experience, though, and I learned a lot.”

Research provided a bridge that connected class material to real-life applications. “Studying is hard for sure, but research definitely gives me some context to what I’m doing, and shows me that all the stuff I’m studying is going to be of use to me,” Chung said. “My classes aren’t really related to the work I’m doing, but it’s helpful because whenever people bring up a topic, I at least know something about it from class and am not completely lost.”

Chung has continued to do research in the lab this academic year and is planning his next project that works with neurons. He hopes to do the combined B.S./M.S. program in Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern and possibly apply for a Ph.D. afterward.