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Industrial Revelations: Darlene Solomon, Agilent Technologies

Darlene Solomon took on her current role of Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Agilent Technologies in 2006, having previously been the company’s head of research. As CTO, she has a broad range of responsibilities, from leading Agilent’s technology strategy to enabling external collaborations and partnerships. Darlene also serves on the board of directors at advanced materials manufacturer Materion Corporation, and is a member of multiple academic and government advisory boards, and has been recognized by awards including being elected to the National Academy of Engineering and receiving the Daniel J Epstein Engineering Management Award at the Viterbi Awards - “the academy awards of engineering.” We spoke to Darlene to find out more about her work at the cutting-edge of technology.

What was your route into science?

Growing up, I was much more interested in math. I always enjoyed science, but applied to college as a math major – it wasn’t until the end of the second year of my undergraduate degree at Stanford University that I decided to make the switch to chemistry. I just didn’t see myself fitting into the career paths ahead of me in math. So, I took lots of biology, physics and chemistry courses the following year and found that understanding molecular activity, metabolism, and immunity at a chemical level was what intrigued me most.

At what stage did you move into analytical chemistry?

In my PhD I worked as a bio-inorganic chemist and spectroscopy formed a major component of my research, particularly electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR). I joined Hewlett-Packard Laboratories’ medical products group in 1984 as a scientist working on a biosensors project for arterial blood gas monitoring, but when that project concluded I soon found that the lab’s overall focus on electrical engineering approaches, such as ultrasound, was not the best fit for a biochemist. I moved to another research group within HP Labs focusing on analytical chemistry, which later became Agilent. After a couple of years in this analytical environment, I got the opportunity to try my hand at management – first as a project manager and then as a department manager. This department was soon rebranded the Chemical and Biological Systems Department as our focus expanded into genomics and biology – I was in my element!

What would you advise a student or early career scientist faced with a choice between industry and academia?

It really depends on the individual and their preferences – both paths provide great opportunities. The first thing to consider is where your motivation lies. For me, I knew during my studies that being a professor wasn’t for me because the teaching aspect of the role didn’t excite me, and while I was hugely passionate about science, there wasn’t one specific area I felt compelled to pursue. Rather, I was attracted to many areas of research and the idea of developing technologies that make a real difference to customers, and ultimately to society.

Many labs are embracing artificial intelligence to help generate and process the wealth of data needed for omics studies.

Another factor is if you are motivated by working closely with others – for a career in industry, I think it helps if you really thrive on teamwork.

What is your role at Agilent?

Agilent invests a significant percentage of its revenue into research and development, and I work alongside the CEO and executive staff to make sure we make the most of that investment. One of our main aims is to support innovation in the global technology community, which lends itself to further improving our own technologies and products. I also manage longrange technology development in our research labs, lead collaborations with faculty Principal Investigators and universities, and partner with start-up companies. Plus, I represent Agilent on various boards and review committees – including National Academies’ Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology, UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering Advisory Board, and Singapore National Research Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board – to keep the company connected to amazing academic, industrial and governmental leaders. Essentially, I’m constructing a virtual crystal ball to help guide the future direction of our research.

What collaborations are you excited about?

We have many exciting collaborations. Just recently we set up a new center of excellence with Imperial College London at their Molecular Sciences Research Hub. We have already identified opportunities to collaborate in areas such as precision medicine, cellular manufacturing and synthetic biology. The sense of possibility is thrilling – you never know just what will come of new projects like this. We’re planning cross-organizational seminars and technology days with the university, which will bring our scientists together and open the door to further collaborations in future.

How has instrumentation changed in the time you’ve been in the field?

We have come to appreciate the complexity of biology, evidenced by the shift from being a largely qualitative to an increasingly quantitative science in the last decade or two. This movement and the rise of precision medicine has driven advances in bioanalytical instrumentation, including the development of new sequencing platforms and the expansion of longstanding techniques like MS to explore not just proteomics, but also glycomics, metabolomics and so on; many of these techniques are now tied to an automated analysis tool, which streamlines the process even further.

What do you see for the future of analytical instrumentation in your “virtual crystal ball”?

Many labs are embracing artificial intelligence to help generate and process the wealth of data needed for omics studies. I think this trend is going to evolve over time along with the tremendous capability of intuitive and easy-to-use software systems trained on data to simplify research endeavors. Essentially, what we will see are smarter instruments, with optimized workflows and more heavily interconnected laboratories that are enabled by the ability to leverage largescale data and rapidly advancing technologies like augmented reality – it’s going to be a lot of fun. Regarding specific areas in which these tools will be used, I’m especially hopeful for immuno-oncology and gene and cell therapies.

What are the biggest challenges facing instrument manufacturers?

In the past it was all about instrument performance. Now, some of the focus has shifted to usability and providing actionable information, as our customers increasingly deal with large-scale, complex and heterogeneous datasets. Compared with 10 years ago, we now require much more knowledge of the specific application area to provide the required level of information. What’s more, instruments must be easy to use and ideally failsafe, to improve overall productivity.

What motivates you?

It’s exciting to see our products benefit customers and make a difference in the world. Day-to-day, however, I have two main drivers: doing things that have never been done before and contributing to the success of my incredibly talented teams and partners. I am faced with interesting and unique challenges on a daily basis and thrive on our being able to devise totally new ways to overcome them. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning…and what keeps me up late at night!

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About the Author
Charlotte Barker

Associate Content Director

After studying biology at Imperial College London, I got my start in biomedical publishing as a commissioning editor for healthcare journals, and I’ve spent my career covering everything from early-stage research to clinical medicine. Attracted by the creativity, talent and passion of the team, I joined Texere Publishing in 2014, where I’m now Associate Content Director and Editor of The Cannabis Scientist.

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