The chemist making ‘micro-labs’ for algae

As the world’s population grows, so does our need for sustainable food sources. Chemist Ziyi Yu contributes to research into types of algae that might replace fish oils in our diet. When he first arrived in the UK, Yu found the language and cultural differences a real challenge. Four years on, he even loves full English breakfasts!

Ziyi Yu at Makespace (Nick Saffell)

I was nine when I first looked down a microscope. My parents are both teachers and we lived on the campus of a school in Hunan Province, central China. I put a maize leaf under a microscope. I could see all the cells. It was amazing to be able to look at things that were invisible to the naked eye.

In China I did my PhD on microfluidics. I was researching ways to split fluids into tiny droplets — and working on a device that would help scientists to do this. If you can split fluids into droplets, you can carry out experiments efficiently, economically and quickly. Instead of using a flask of liquid, you can use one droplet.

I’m working in Chris Abell’s group on micro-droplets research. Our lab is part of a group of universities working on the potential of algae as a source of oils such as fatty acids or lipids. Currently, these oils are sourced mainly from fish. The accumulation of heavy metals or toxins in wild fish is causing concerns about health. The micro-droplets method is helping scientists to identify types of algae that could provide an alternative source of oils.

Algae is cheap to produce. Algae can be grown in big tanks wherever there is sunlight. There are many, many kinds of algae. Our contribution is to devise a way of identifying strains that are particularly high in fatty acids. We’re using tiny micro-droplets as a specific ‘home’ for algae, where millions of algae cells have individual micro-droplet ‘accommodations’. We monitor the growth and the fatty acid accumulation of each algae in the micro-droplets.

To sort algae based on lipid content, I need a glass microfluidic device. With support from the Royal Society of Chemistry, I learnt how to make a glass device at Xi’an Jiaotong University. But, back in Cambridge, we didn’t have the equipment needed to drill tiny holes in glass. Each hole has to be just 500 microns in diameter — roughly five times that of an average human hair.

When I did an internet search for “laser cutting Cambridge” I discovered Makespace. Makespace is a workshop in central Cambridge that makes specialist equipment available to people who sign up as members. Not only did Makespace have the equipment I needed — a laser cutter — but I was also able to get training in how to use it. Because it’s a community-run organisation, members volunteer to train up new users.

At Makespace, there is a lot of creativity under one roof. I go there once or twice a week, and there are always people making things or teaching others. You might find scientists, artists, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, making anything from a prototype of an electronic product to a wooden bowl. The laser cutters and 3D printers are usually busy, but if you want to learn to make jewellery or use a band saw, you can do that too.

My colleagues in the lab are from all over the world. They come from Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, Spain, Italy, France, Singapore and, of course, the UK. It’s the first time I’ve met people from all these countries and it’s amazing to work with them. We bring different cultures together, share experiences, and help each other.

Learning English is a big challenge. I studied English at school in China but the emphasis was on reading and writing. A lot of my classmates practiced their listening and speaking skills from radio programmes, but that was too boring for me. When I first arrived in Cambridge four years ago, I found it very difficult to have a conversation in my ‘Chinglish’. To improve, I did some courses run by the University’s Language Centre and Personal and Professional Development Office.

Cambridge is surprisingly informal. In China, respect for teachers and professors is demonstrated through formality. Calling our professor by his or her first name would be a mark of disrespect — and, until recently, we would rarely question or challenge them. It took me about three months to adapt to an environment that gives me a lot of flexibility. Professors in the UK are highly respected, but the relationship I have with them feels more like friends.

I love fish and chips! Some Chinese people don’t like British food but I enjoy the full English breakfasts. My wife and I have joined the National Trust — it’s a wonderful organisation. Our favourite places in and around Cambridge are Wimpole Hall, the Botanic Garden, and the River Cam with the bridges. When I return to China, I will always think of Cambridge as a second home.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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