So they did. For more than a decade, scientists had been trying to use glass and silicon, the brittle crystal used in computers, to shrink cumbersome laboratory equipment down to one-inch-square chips and perform relatively simple functions, such as snipping strands of DNA. But Quake and his research team found these materials were difficult to work with, expensive and slowly produced. The costly silicon, which needs to be used in a sterile room, was too stiff for making tiny devices, and the valves that controlled the fluid flow had to be sealed with rubber so they wouldn't leak.
For the chips, silicone was poured onto a mold that formed channels in the material, a sort of lab "piping," and another sheet of silicone was put on top to create an enclosed device. But there were problems. "We really couldn't use it because it didn't have any valves, so there was no capacity to turn things on and off," recalls chemist Marc A. Unger, one of Quake's first postdoctoral researchers at Caltech. "It's like having all the showers and faucets in your house running all the time."
That Quake jumped from one field to the top of another with warp speed seems a product of precocious talent coupled with an ability to capitalize on opportunity. After his whirlwind education at Stanford he earned a doctorate in physics from Oxford University, which he attended on a scholarship. He then apprenticed briefly in the Stanford lab of Nobel laureate Steven Chu before arriving at Caltech. "Steve was always sprinkled with stardust," says Gajus Worthington, a Stanford classmate who is now Quake's business partner.