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CME student wins design prize at Cambridge University

Fareeha Safir discusses her award-winning microfluidics device and Cambridge-MIT Exchange program experience.
Fareeha Safir took part in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) last year and was awarded the Third Year Design Project Prize. At left is Andrew Cockerill, BP’s director of university relationships.
Fareeha Safir took part in the Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) last year and was awarded the Third Year Design Project Prize. At left is Andrew Cockerill, BP’s director of university relationships.

Since 2000, MIT has sent juniors to study for a year at the University of Cambridge as part of the Cambridge-MIT Exchange (CME) program; in turn, Cambridge students get to experience a year at MIT. As part of CME, third-year engineering students spend half of a term in Cambridge labs working on design projects.

Fareeha Safir, a mechanical engineering major, participated in CME last year and won a prestigious Third Year Design Project Prize for her outstanding work on a microfluidics device — a chip as small as a dime that can efficiently measure and analyze minute fluid volumes. The prize is one of several awards presented to exceptional students and faculty at Cambridge University’s annual Prize Day.  

Winning the award, sponsored by BP, was only part of her exciting year in the United Kingdom. Back at MIT, Fareeha shared some of her overseas experience with the MIT Global Education and Career Development office.

Q. What drew you to apply for the CME?

A. I'm originally from the Midwest and had not spent much time in England before, but I’m quite an Anglophile. I read a lot of classic British literature and the BBC news, and I watch British programs on TV. I was interested in Cambridge University even before I got into MIT and even considered applying to Cambridge full time. The CME program was one of the factors that led me to accept my offer from MIT. I think I was excited by the opportunity both for the cultural immersion — to meet new people and really spend a deal of time in a new place — as well as the opportunity to explore a different education system.

Q. Tell me a little about your winning design project.

A. Microfluidics devices can be described as “labs on a chip.” They are a combination of channels, mixers, and pumps designed to automate a process dealing with microvolumes of fluids. In areas of biology or chemistry, you might have very small sample sizes, if you are working with a small quantity of DNA, for example, or you might have reagents that cost an extraordinary amount. Microfluidics chips would make many of these processes faster, simpler or cheaper.

For our lab, we had to design a passive mixer and a droplet generator. We were first assigned to pairs. Half of the pairs, myself included, designed a passive mixer — this means that the shape of the channel itself induced mixing as opposed to an external source leading to fluids mixing. The other pairs designed a droplet generator, meant to produce uniform droplets with a volume of about 10 nanoliters. Then, a team combined the passive mixer with a droplet generator, making a more complete chip. During the course of the lab, we designed the chips on computers, using Inkscape, and then fabricated the chips in the lab, testing them by studying the flow using video microscopes. We went through multiple design iterations and chips until we got to our final product.

Q. What was your impression of the UK and the University of Cambridge?

A. The people were extremely friendly and helpful. They were always willing to answer questions and I made some wonderful friends. You met people from such a range of backgrounds and academic areas: You could have a deep conversation about law and then find yourself hanging out with scientists and engineers. I really enjoyed the fact that you could be talking with a friend about the newest scientific discoveries in a building that was five- or six-hundred years old, a building where people like Newton or Lord Kelvin might have had similar conversations.

Q. What was your most memorable experience while at Cambridge?

A. One of my most memorable experiences was definitely formal hall. These formal three-course dinners were just like a scene from Harry Potter. The formal hall was a dark-paneled, former chapel with stained glass windows, busts of famous alumni, and long tables along the length of the hall with the fellows’ table at one end.

Q. Any last thoughts about your CME experience?

A. I had an amazing time being at the university and getting the opportunity to travel. I just loved walking through the University of Cambridge’s beautiful colleges and seeing history everywhere. Cambridge is more than 802 years old. At Christ’s College, Cambridge, our famous alumni include Milton and Darwin and you can still see Darwin’s room. It’s crazy to see buildings older than the United States! Also, because of the rail system, you can very easily travel around. I was able to see some historic houses as well as London, Stonehenge, and Oxford, and I also traveled with friends to caves and mountains as part of the university’s outdoors societies.

CME is a great opportunity for MIT students to go abroad and experience the academic culture of the University of Cambridge, a world-renowned institution, for a full year, and now there are more chances than ever to take part. For the past two years, BP has funded 15 exchange spots and has extended that number to 21 for 2013-2014. Contact MIT’s Global Education at to find out more, or visit the CME program webpage.

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