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Jason Heikenfeld Honored for Distinguished Research Accomplishments

UC’s internationally known authority in display devices and electrowetting technology receives the 2013 Young Investigator Award by the UC chapter of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society.

Date: 4/4/2013
By: Desiré Bennett
Other Contact: Arthur Davies
Other Contact Phone: (513) 556-9181
Jason Heikenfeld, PhD.
Jason Heikenfeld, PhD.

Have you ever been outside on a sunny day and wished you could see the images and information on your iPad display? Researchers at the UC Novel Devices Laboratory, led by Dr. Jason Heikenfeld, are working on a solution. And thanks to his continued diligence on solving this and other dilemmas, he is receiving another award, which he can add to his ever-growing list of accomplishments.

Heikenfeld has been selected as the 2013 Sigma Xi Young Investigator at UC. This annual award, presented in conjunction with the Office of the Vice President for Research, recognizes junior faculty members at UC for their distinguished early-career  research accomplishments in a field of science or engineering.

The researcher is being recognized for global leadership in display technology, global leadership in electrowetting science and his ability to lead communication across disciplines.

 “Dr. Heikenfeld is joining an outstanding legacy of Sigma Xi Young Investigators at UC,” said UC Chapter Sigma Xi President Pat Limbach. “We are excited to recognize his accomplishments.”

At the center of Heikenfeld’s accomplishments is electrofluidics. “We have a core expertise that circles around fluids and electricity, and it has been at the center of everything we do so far,” he said. “Everything that you see in the display technology world – including electronic paper, in which we’ve arguably become a global authority – utilizes electricity and fluids.” 

In explaining electrofluidics, he likens a fluid droplet on a surface to magnetism. “We basically inject negative charge into a droplet of fluid or a color-ink display,” he said.  “Then where we want to move it, we put a positive charge, and the electric field, which is that attractive force, it just pulls it over there.”

Heikenfeld makes it sound easy, but working with electricity and fluids certainly has its challenges.  “It’s funny, my training as a graduate student was all solid-state technology – not a single liquid. It was easy because you put the stuff there, and it stays there,” he explains. “When you move with liquids, it gets a heck of lot harder. It’s like the equivalent of setting a table at a five-star restaurant and everything stays there, versus a toddler eating cake and it goes everywhere! It’s hard to control.”

Even though he may not have liquids completely under control, Heikenfeld’s on the right track in terms of applied devices. In regard to moving fluids with electricity, he says, “Since I joined UC, we have introduced, at a previously unseen rate, new devices that rely on special fluid properties and electricity to manipulate those fluids.”

One of Heikenfeld’s latest applications is a partnership with Air Force Research Labs. Although it is quite removed from electrofluidics, it is just as impactful. “In our newest project we’re now doing sweat sensing for biomarkers,” he explains. “In this case, we’re not using electricity to move fluids. We’re using electrical sensors to actually sense biomarkers that are in sweat to diagnose medical conditions.

“There are all of these unique little small proteins and small molecules circulating in your blood, and if you can measure them, you can diagnose disease or sickness long in advance of external symptoms, and better understand your health as impacted by all the daily choices you make.” Traditionally, these predictions are made through analyzing blood, urine or even saliva samples.

UC researcher Jason Heikenfeld, center, tests the sweat-sensor communication with a smart phone. At right is student Daniel Rose. At left is Dan
UC researcher Jason Heikenfeld, center, tests the sweat-sensor communication with a smart phone. At right is student Daniel Rose. At left is Dan's brother, Roger Rose.

Through Heikenfeld’s technology, these same calculations can be made quickly, simply and non-invasively. “When you use blood, and you want to find the biomarker, it’s got all kinds of stuff in there, so you have to do a lot to purify it,” he explains.  “But sweat is pretty pure by the time it comes out, in terms of limiting the number of things you have to consider.”

Heikenfeld and his team are working toward realizing various uses for this technology including smartphone health monitoring via an app. Although its implementation is at least 20 years away, the implications are exciting. “This could have real impact,” he said.

“Your doctor could be getting information from you in real time and say ‘Hey, I think you should come in. I want to talk about something.’ You would get advance notice without waiting until you’re symptomatic.”  Furthermore, his team has identified several less-sophisticated earlier-term products that could appear in as little as five to ten years time.

It is the potential fulfillment of real-world applications like these that drive Heikenfeld’s passion for research, but even more important to him is dedication to education. “People often associate me with research, but I spend so much of my time in service for many of our educational programs," he said.

"I spend an unusually large amount of time on my own courses where I am constantly looking for ways to better serve our students with best teaching practices. That gets overshadowed by the research a lot. When I wake up, I think more about our undergraduate education. I probably spend just as much time on education as I do on research, and that’s important.”

And he has a track record to prove it. “Dr. Jason Heikenfeld has a genuine passion for the success of all the members of the research partnership, especially students,” said vice president of UC Information Technologies Nelson C. Vincent.  “He is resolute and always optimistic in his commitment to our students and their need for applied and innovative research experiences that fundamentally shape the understanding of what it means to be a scientist.”

Heikenfeld says that he is incredibly honored to be a part of a university with such a large and diverse research enterprise. “We have young faculty from all sorts of disciplines worthy of this award,” he said. “I now need to continue to work hard to live up to the expectations of this award, namely continuing to grow as an internationally recognized scholar while constantly looking at ways to enhance science education and STEM-based industries around Cincinnati.”

The award certificate and $500 honorarium is being presented April 4, 2013, at the Spring 2013 Sigma Xi meeting and mixer.  As part of the award, Heikenfeld is presenting a lecture on his research during the fall Sigma Xi mixer and meeting.