Caglar Elbuken is bridging academia and industry – fundamental research leads to applications

Professor Caglar Elbuken arrived in Oulu last winter from Ankara, Turkey, to take on a new career challenge. Namely, the founding of two research groups for the University of Oulu and the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, respectively.

Before becoming aware of the opportunity in Oulu, Elbuken was holding an assistant professor's position in Bilkent University in Ankara and had established a research group focusing on biosensor systems and microfluidic systems. Elbuken also received a Young Scientist Award by Science Academy, Turkey for people under 40. Elbuken's research group had already released a number of publications, when he came across the Finnish position online.

”I noticed that the keywords matched my experience and interests exactly. I was very interested in the notion that there is a strong connection between the university and industry here in Oulu. Bilkent is an excellent university, and has provided me a wealth of opportunity to excel in material science at the National Nanotechnology Research Center (UNAM). My research is very much related to healthcare and biosciences, and I felt that Oulu is providing a unique environment, as well as challenge, with links to biochemistry and a hospital next door,” Elbuken explains.

Now, Elbuken holds a joint professorship in the University of Oulu (50 %) and in VTT (50 %). At the university, his time is split between two faculties: the Faculty of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine and the Faculty of Medicine. Elbuken's purpose is to work as a bridge between research and industry applications.

”It's basic science in the university and then transferring technology for the industry through VTT. It's very exciting,” Elbuken says.

Fundamental research in micro-scale phenomena

Elbuken's background is in electrical and electronics engineering. He was a Ph.D. student at Waterloo, in Canada, working on magnetic levitation and microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS. During his post-doc time in Canada, he switched to biosensor systems and microfluidics. He found a job in the industry as a senior scientist at Abbott Point-of-Care in Ottawa.

”I spent a year in their R&D working on hand-held point-of-care analyzers, which were designed to detect multiple diseases from a drop of blood. We had a device doing over 20 tests and it was one of the best products in the market”, Elbuken says.

As a successor of MEMS, microfluidics is an area of research closely linked with so-called lab-on-a-chip systems. Biochemisty laboratories traditionally have had huge machines to study very small things, and the idea was to shrink them down to chipsize. This meant building sensors, channels, conduits, valves, pumps and so on in microscale.

Microfluidics has many branches, and Elbuken's research is divided into three categories. Elbuken is looking into the development of two-phase flow systems.

”This is pipetting in an automated manner, with really small volumes and at much smaller and faster scale. Instead of running single type fluids, you take two immiscible fluids, say oil and water, into a single microchannel forming micro droplets. We are talking about volumes in picoliters at speeds of thousands of droplets per second. No human can do this by hand, and this is to help biochemists”, Elbuken explains.

Elbuken says that in these types of systems, variation in droplet volumes is a point of error and means that the work is based on estimates. As you divide the sample into extremely small droplets, they have to be consistent so you know the data you obtain is reliable.

”Nobody wants to have uncalibrated pipettes. And this is my goal, to study the theoretical and absolute monodispersity of droplets to ensure such precision pipetting is done without any volume error. This can be then applied to all applications of droplet systems”, Elbuken enthuses.

Elbuken says that the objectives of the group are to study the fundamentals, but the bigger goal is to create experts who can collaborate with other scientists. Technology development should go hand-in-hand with application development.

”Collaboration is key. We can develop these systems and they leverage the whole faculty”, Elbuken says.

Long-term projects mean applications down the road

The second area of interest for Elbuken is hemorheology and measuring blood flow properties. ”I am interested in measuring the rheological properties of blood, like how the viscosity and elasticity in your blood is changing? I believe there is a strong correlation between this measure and different diseases, cardiovascular and anemia for instance. And the idea would be to develop a system that measures this non-invasively. This is probably a very long project, a ten-year timeframe, if it works”, Elbuken says.

The third area is something that Elbuken's group recently published an article on in April 2020, viscoelastic migration.

”We were able to explain the fundamental physics of how micro/nanoparticles move in a viscoelastic fluid. We are now carrying this system forward as a new type of electrophoresis system for separation of analytes under electric fields. It is me and two other professors from our faculty, and this is proof-of-concept research in making next-generation electrophoresis systems”, Elbuken explains.

This is long-term research as well, with applications maybe in a ten-year timeframe. But this could lead to new systems in analyzing trace amount detection. Applications are in studying the quality of drinking water, detecting pollution and advanced lab-scale biochemical characterization, areas where we need instruments that do very sensitive measurements.

”This is still very much down the road. We just published the hypothesis of what are the governing forces in this. But this is what I am here to do, understanding the fundamentals of fluidics and their behavior at microscale and nanoscale.”

The strong connection between the university and industry in Oulu interested Elbuken at the first place. Elbuken's purpose is to work as a bridge between research and industry applications.

New life in Oulu

Elbuken says he has adjusted well to life in Oulu also outside of work. He now lives in Oulu with his wife and two children. He likes winter all right–having spent years in Canada–but he says with a laugh: ”I understand why they interview people in the summertime”.

He also says there is a strong correlation between his life in Waterloo.

”Waterloo is like Oulu in the sense that there is a quality university and a strong connection to the same industry as Oulu has. Waterloo is the headquarters of RIM, the company behind Blackberry, and Nokia was a major presence in Oulu. So the stories of the two towns are similar: after a strong establishment they saw their influence diminish, and people decided to diversify their efforts. Both towns have so much talented people in the workforce and are lucky to sit on this excellent human resource, very highly educated people. And both of them are doing well with so many start-ups and high-tech ventures”, Elbuken says.

While work is sure to keep Elbuken busy, he is looking forward to bringing more of his books from Ankara to his new home. An avid reader, his library is still in Turkey. And as summer in Oulu unfolds, he looks forward to spending time outdoors with his children.

Text and photos: Janne-Pekka Manninen

Last updated: 18.6.2020