Dr Valentin Romanov doing yoga outdoors

Star Scientist - Dr Valentin Romanov

Dr Valentin Romanov has always been fascinated by the things we can't see with the naked eye

19 January 2024

This passion for the small things in life has led to Dr Romanov holding a unique position at the Institute. He's our only scientific engineer and is an expert in microfluidics – the study of how liquids behave at the smallest physical levels.

His expertise is opening up a whole new world of possibilities for the Institute's scientists and will help further our understanding of heart disease in the future.

Dr Valentin Romanov and Dr Jane Yu

What first attracted you to the field of nanotechnology?

When considering what to study at university, I knew I wanted to study some form of engineering, but I was also intrigued by entrepreneurship. So, I did a double degree in Mechanical Engineering and Business Management.

With mechanical engineering, there was the possibility to explore micro and nano-engineering, which appealed to me as I have always been interested in the things that we can't see but what we derive significant value from – the technology involved in the mobile phone is an excellent example.

After graduating from the University of South Australia, you secured a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah. What was it like studying in the US?

It was incredibly competitive and very different from doing a PhD in Australia. You are on probation for the first 18 months until you pass a qualifying exam. If you fail the exam, you are out, which is brutal and stressful. So, I just studied and studied.

While it was very competitive, it was also exhilarating because of the available resources and money in the States. If you wanted to do an experiment, there was no lead time. You'd order something, and the next day, it was there. It was just go, go, go.

During your undergraduate studies, you became interested in microfluidics, which explores how liquids behave. How did that come about?

I remember struggling to find an honours project I was interested in, but then my supervisor told me about a grant he had for creating gold nanoparticles using microfluidics. It sounded like alchemy at the time. I didn't know what this was then, but it was fascinating and involved studying how liquids behave depending on the scale - for example, the difference between turning on a tap, and water rushing out compared to how blood flows in our bodies. Imagine yourself miniaturised, to the size of a protein, and put into an artery or capillary. Trying to move around will be extremely difficult. You'll be wading through a sea of protein, bumping into molecules, and the liquid will feel super viscous, creating a lot of friction. But if you were the size of a blood cell, moving through the same artery, you would feel almost no friction. As well as studying how liquids behave, we can deduce how to manipulate them – for example, the pregnancy test is derived from microfluidics and how the liquid travels through paper. It's called wicking – where you place liquid at one end, and it wicks over to the other side.

During my PhD I explored how proteins interact with lipid nanoparticles, that I engineered using microfluidics. The skills I gained creating gold nanoparticles during my honours degree meant faster progress in my PhD research.

Gold nanoparticles sound particularly special – what are they, and why are they important?

Gold nanoparticles are tiny little particles of gold, about 10,000 x smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair. In the field of drug delivery, these particles can be coated with antibodies, and then sent off in the body to hopefully reach the area of the body where they are needed – such as to help kill a tumour. One challenge is that the human body is incredibly good at removing foreign substances. Adding a layer of lipids, or fatty molecules – enables it to “hide” the therapeutic, protecting it from a potential immune response. I had to build the devices that generated these tiny particles, which was very cool.

How did you end up at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute?

Knowing that I was on my way to Sydney, a friend suggested I contact the Institute's Professor Boris Martinac. So, we met up, and I told him about myself and my work and asked him if he knew anyone in Sydney who might need my skills. And it turned out he did. And that was four years ago. I had no background in biology; I was more into physics and fabrication, so I had to learn a lot quickly. I was hired to establish a new piece of equipment for the Institute called Acoustic Force Spectroscopy.

Dr Valentin Romanov and Dr Jane Yu in our Sydney laboratories

Can you tell us more about this instrument and the role it plays in heart research?

It is an instrument we use to measure single-cell properties. It has a tiny fluid channel that we fill with cells and microparticles. We can watch and study cell behaviour and properties, all in real-time with a resolution of 10 nanometers. To put that into context, one nanometer is one billionth of a metre. We then apply acoustic forces. It's like turning on a little loudspeaker, the sound propagates through the water, and as it does, it interacts with any object in its path. The particles feel the pressure from the sound waves and start moving, and we can then track the particle's movement, which is bound to the cell.

I had to figure out the best optics to use with this system, the appropriate fluid conditions, write custom code to process the data, and so much more. As an engineer, this is my bread and butter; I love solving problems in a cost-effective way that results in outsized benefits.

Regarding this instrument, we were the first to acquire one in Australia and that put me in a unique position of being the sole expert in Australia.

How does this translate into moving forward our understanding of heart research or delivering new treatments?

It's a fundamental research instrument. Does it translate to curing cardiovascular disease? Not quite yet, but it has great potential. You should think about this sort of research differently. For example, if you go back 100 years in mathematics, the formulations and proofs being worked back then have enabled the machine learning and artificial intelligence we have today. But they were not created at the time with any practical purpose.

That is why discovery science like mine is so important. You just don't know what will happen. I'm fortunate to be working with many of the Institute's teams. I'm exploring the role mechanical forces play in relationship to Piezo1, a mechanosensitive channel studied by Professor Martinac and Dr Charles Cox. I'm also working with Professor Bob Graham's lab, aiming to create a vascular network within a 3D printed chip by using some really exotic cells. We can then use this to test different drugs and their effect on vasculature. In the future, this technology may help to quickly determine optimal drug concentrations for individual patients, because we are all unique, and because we are doing this on the micro level, you don't need as much material, the process is fast, efficient and can be done at scale.

As well as collaborating with several groups at the Institute, you are also heavily involved with several committees. Where do you find the time?

I think being involved within your community is very important but it is difficult to find the time. I had to cut back on the number of committees I was sitting on to concentrate on my research . Still, I am excited about being part of the CVMM – the Cardiovascular and Molecular Medicine committee - and seeing how we can add value to early mid-career researchers.

Valentin Romanov mountain climbing

It's essential at this stage of your career not just to bury your head in science but to learn, travel, be exposed to different ideas and perspectives, so one of our initiates has been to provide grants for scientists to be able to travel overseas to visit other labs. I'm also all about knowledge sharing and have recently signed up to teach a workshop about artificial intelligence and how to use ChatGPT in scientific research.

Work-life balance can be challenging to achieve for EMCRs. Do you think you've got that under control?

I have time for my interests. I do a lot of rock climbing – both up in the Blue Mountains and at a climbing gym in Sydney. I also practise yoga in Clovelly, which is close to my home. It's a dream to finish a class and be at the beach, and whilst living so close to the ocean is expensive, for me, it is worth it. It's also great for my mental health.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years