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Elliot Hui: From Engineering Pop-Up Books to Building Life Science Tools

SLAS2015 Conference Co-Chair Elliot Hui, Ph.D., is rarely at rest. He spends his weeks teaching, directing a laboratory of 16 undergraduate and graduate students and even competing in a variety of team sports with his students and fellow faculty members.


However, this industrious assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), says his passion is his research. "It's more than work. Science and technology are fun for me," he explains. "I enjoy building things and exploring possibilities, while making a difference for others."

Hui migrated from electrical engineering to tissue engineering through the course of his graduate and postdoctoral training, and he is excited to see his past and present experiences come together. "Drawing from different fields of study and integrating disparate techniques has allowed me to be successful, but it's not unique to me or my lab," he points out. "The scientific community is really encouraging people to cross disciplines. What I've done is a good example, but it's something you see scientists engaging in everywhere."

It's also a practice he has witnessed for many years while attending the SLAS annual conference and exhibition. "For me, the SLAS event is a great mix of academics and professionals and offers the most effective venue for me to meet people from industry," he shares, adding that he has worked to promote the event among his academic colleagues long before he held the co-chair title. "With the technology we are developing in academia, this is the place to meet the end users, or potential end users, of our work."

Hui mentions a connection he made with the CEO of a San Diego medical diagnostics company during LabAutomation 2011. "Last year when I was advising a group of students for a business plan competition, he drove up to Irvine and spent a few hours sharing his perspectives and experiences with the team," says Hui. "He was able to provide very different information than professors typically can."

He is excited to help others develop similar relationships through his role in SLAS2015, to be held Feb. 7-11, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Hui and fellow Co-chair James Inglese, Ph.D., of The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), spent many hours planning a program of ideas, innovation and insight for laboratory science and technology professionals.

Being at the top level of conference coordination could be intimidating, but Hui is accustomed to immersing himself in new experiences. "I want to continue the tradition of bringing together high-quality academic and industry knowledge to the science and engineering community," he says. "I want to do my best to maintain this strong program and its reputation for excellence."

Crossing the Lines for Success

Hui pursued a bachelor's degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), attracted to the fundamental nature of the subject. "Physics allowed me to describe the world with math," he explains. Following a love of gadget building, Hui added another major to his undergraduate studies, electrical engineering and computer science, and then continued to pursue electrical engineering during graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). There, he had his first encounter with micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS).

"I was fascinated that we could take the tools originally used for building computer chips and adapt them to build mechanical components such as microscopic motors, pumps, valves, and eventually even biological tissues." As a graduate student, Hui explored the limits of microfabrication. "It was easy to build things that were flat and two-dimensional, but I wanted to build three-dimensional objects. I ended up creating the equivalent of children's pop-up books on a microchip! It was a way to transform things that were flat into three dimensions," he explains.

As he came to the end of his doctoral training, he began to think about how he could best leverage his expertise in order to help people. "Through my undergraduate and graduate training, I hadn't done anything that was related to the life sciences," he explains, but he began to notice opportunities to apply microfabrication technology in the biomedical sphere. When a postdoctoral position opened up at MIT in the lab of Sangeeta Bhatia, M.D., Ph.D., Hui took the opportunity. He was awarded a NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award to support his postdoctoral training and began developing MEMS tools to probe cell-to-cell interactions in the liver.

"Bhatia's lab used microfabrication to create human liver tissue," he explains. "This tissue could be used in a chip format for drug testing or eventually could be developed into a full-sized organ suitable for transplantion into a patient. This work was exciting as I could use my existing skills in ways that could help people medically." However, he ended up spending longer as a postdoc than he had originally expected, as he essentially retrained in a new field.

"Because I had not studied biology during my undergraduate and graduate training, entering the tissue engineering lab was a jarring transition," Hui explains. "At first I felt like I had moved to a foreign country and everyone spoke a new language." He laughs at his foreign language analogy. "Before I started graduate school, I lived in Russia for two years. I didn't speak Russian before I got there, but in three months' time, my Russian was better than my four years of high school Spanish! There is something about an immersion experience." Language learning is better, he says, when you are dropped into a new country without many others from your own culture. It can be similar for an engineer who is learning biology.

"I never thought about it this way, but I just jumped into my biological work. I asked questions, did reading, whatever was needed. There can be a perceived barrier for people who have spent all of their time in a different area, but crossing disciplines can reap a lot of rewards," Hui says.

SLAS has continued to facilitate his exposure to other disciplines. "LabAutomation and SLAS helped me build my first connections to the pharmaceutical industry. I saw that laboratories were being automated and miniaturized similar to how computers and telecommunication have rapidly grown smaller, cheaper, and more powerful." Hui's lab is helping to advance this transition with his work in microfluidics.

Connecting Inside and Outside of His Lab

Since Hui joined the UC Irvine faculty in 2008, he has built a research group that uses MEMS, microfluidics and optogenetics to explore questions related to tumor progression and stem cell differentiation, as well as build devices for point-of-care diagnostics. "We are tool builders," he summarizes. "We create devices that can be used to answer biological or medical questions."

"In the lab, we try to control biological systems at the micrometer scale. We move cells around and create biological constructs to try to understand how the structure of tissue affects its function. We also examine how tumor cells talk to the other cells around them, and how that communication contributes to the progression of the disease. If we can identify key pathways of communication, then we can block them and slow down the progress of the disease," he says.

"For medical diagnostics, we want to build simple, effective devices that are as easy to use as a home pregnancy kit – you buy it in a drugstore and use it at home to get a reliable medical answer," he comments. To achieve this, he is building a pneumatic computer that uses fluidic valves in place of electronic transistors. "In order to move liquids around, electronic controllers must transduce voltages into physical pressure. In microfluidics, this is best accomplished with mechanical actuators that connect to the chip through a bundle of pneumatic tubing." He describes this compromise as large and complicated.

"It does not really get to the goal of creating a miniature integrated system that fits into the palm of your hand, as a cell phone does. Our goal is to have a chip that performs both liquid handling and computing using only microfluidic components. This would allow us to build a self-contained, automated lab-on-a-chip that doesn't need any off-chip controllers."

Another of Hui's projects earned him the 2013 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award. His work, "Directed Evolution of Phytochrome Absorption Spectra for Multichannel Optogenetic Cellular Interfaces," seeks to create a set of proteins to activate different cellular functions in response to specific wavelengths of light. Hui's team started with plant phytochrome proteins that are used by plants to steer toward sunlight, and then sought to create modified proteins that are sensitive to different colors of light.

The goal is to adapt the plant phytochrome proteins to a broader spectrum and make versions that are sensitive to different colors. "For example, you could have a red-sensitive phytochrome that activates one function and a blue-sensitive phytochrome that activates another gene. The problem is that we don't have this flexibility right now," Hui says. "What we want to do is to use evolution in a controlled way in the lab to evolve phytochromes to be sensitive to different colors in the optical spectrum."

The DARPA award, which provides $470,000 to Hui's lab over two years, "is an infusion of resources giving us creative freedom to explore this idea. The program has also allowed me to meet amazing researchers from across the nation," Hui says.

But all work and no play makes for a dull research environment. To build team spirit and inject some fun into this serious atmosphere, his group recharges their creativity with some intramural sports. His lab holds multiple kickball championships, and is the current football championship titleholder, as the Hui lab members take their bond onto the playing field, competing against other UC Irvine labs. "Our lab is a serious but fun group of people. When hiring, I try to look for people who will fit in well to the culture of the group," Hui remarks.

The Los Angeles native and Lakers fan participates in faculty pick-up basketball games twice a week. "I love basketball – watching it, playing it. I lived in Boston for a while during my scientific training. It was a horrible thing when the Celtics beat the Lakers badly in the championships. I was happy to come to UC Irvine and return to Lakers territory," he concludes. "My second year as a professor here, the Lakers got a rematch with the Celtics and beat them in the championships on our home turf! That was a real treat for me."

October 20, 2014