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Scientist, Engineer, Inventor

Did you always want to be a scientist?

I grew up in Kentucky spending a lot of time in the woods and on horseback, so I aspired to be a forest ranger or a cowgirl. However, in college I became interested in biologically oriented research, which led to graduate school at Oxford University, UK, where I fell more in love with lab work and research. From there, I completed my first postdoc in biochemistry and a second in immunology – becoming more involved in clinical research.

I really am still fascinated with discoveries in nature – which is the essence of science for me – and new ways of creation, fueled by engineering know-how. I don’t know if you’d call the realization of an invention a “eureka moment,” but invention certainly generates moments of excitement that prevent me from ever getting bored.

You take a very practical approach to your research – why did you shift your focus?

When I was midway through my career, I decided I wanted to make things to put in the hands of others to solve their problems. So I became half scientist, half engineer. Even when I started out as a scientist, I focused on practical tasks such as developing diagnostics for cancer based on blood samples. Using the tools of engineering has been very liberating, because instead of trying to develop or prove theories, I could actually solve problems and generate theories to fit the facts! This approach worked perfectly in terms of how my brain works and the results validated the process. I basically figured out what I wanted to do and learned whatever I needed to learn to accomplish the goal.

I also have a policy where every five years I try to figure out what’s the most exciting thing going on in science or engineering and put a foot in that door. This is how I worked in regenerative medicine and pharmacoengineering while collaborating with others that want to broaden their perspectives and opportunities outside of their own lab or institution. 

What attracted you to biosensors?

I was frustrated while working for DuPont because they weren’t using the research I was doing to generate clinical products – and I was desperate to do more than write papers. So, I went to the Naval Research Laboratory, and it was here that I realized that it didn’t take any more technical expertise than what I already had to do something pretty deadly – and I got very worried about things that can kill you. I got into biosensors for defense and homeland security – basically keeping people alive.

What achievement has made you most proud?

I’m certainly best known for my work with biosensors. My group invented four different types of optical biosensors – creating some of the first practical methods for incorporating biological molecules into optical devices while keeping the biological recognition molecules functional for long periods of time. This led to 11 commercially produced biosensors – I believe five or six of these are still on the market today. 

In 2017, I was flabbergasted to receive the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) Award – I hadn’t realized how impactful my work had been because much of the results of use were classified at the time. I’ve now become quite involved with NIHF and have been attending the summer camps that they sponsor – teaching elementary school children to appreciate their creativity, learn how to solve problems, and be inventors. Some of these children have opened my eyes and spontaneously thrown out solutions to technical hurdles we’ve never been able to solve in the lab. It’s been a very rewarding experience to work with such a wonderful organization.

But I think what I’m most proud of is my postdocs. I’ve had over 60 postdocs – 50 of which were during my time at the Naval Research Lab that went on to work within industry, academia, nonprofits, governmental labs, and so on. In my lab, they learned to work with people across disciplines and generate the intellectual property critical for translating research into products. Seeing where they’re at now makes me feel so proud that I played a part in their career development. I’ve learned just as much from my students as they’ve learnt from me.

What drives your curiosity and keeps you motivated?

Much of my motivation stems from the realization that I have a chance to make a difference – whether it’s saving lives or worrying about what happens if I don’t. That’s certainly what kept me focused to work 60–80 hours week after week. I’ve certainly got a reputation for my “get it done” mindset. But ultimately, it’s a fascination with what could be or explaining why something is the way it is.

You say that you work on problems that keep you awake at night. What is keeping you up at night at the moment?

I’m certainly worried about clean water and clean air worldwide. I had the opportunity to visit Nepal around 10 years ago and I was really struggling to breathe because the pollution was so bad – it was haunting. Seeing people living in those conditions is mind boggling to me, and when I see western countries abusing what we have when we’re not yet at that stage, it certainly gives cause for serious concern.

You’re well known for working across disciplines. Do we need more of this? 

Definitely. We can learn a lot from combining techniques and there’s a lot of opportunity for synergy across communities. For example, what’s currently happening in global health is fascinating. Now that wearable sensors are used in the home as well as the hospital, we’re seeing opportunities to further branch out with this technology – from therapy for stroke victims to mental health applications. Cross fertilization between healthcare and analytical communities has been key to innovation. If more communities took this approach, we could see some very exciting discoveries.

What advice do you have for others following in your footsteps?

Follow your passions so you have the energy to pursue your goals. But it’s also key to work on hard problems – somebody’s sure to solve the easy ones so you need to take the mantle. Take that leap into the unknown, and see if you can swim. If you can’t, just look for another door. You must take advantage of opportunities and get out of your comfort zone, but also be sensible. 

I highly recommend working in teams – finding people on a similar or higher playing field than you (don’t be afraid to ask for help!) –  this can help you build a key infrastructure and broaden your knowledge. 

Another thing I often tell young people is not to plan more than five years in advance. Your priorities are sure to change, and your interests will evolve. This doesn’t mean your career will change every five years, but it’s important to be open to new opportunities – this is how I combined science with engineering.

Ultimately, appreciate the professional and personal people in your life – these folks are the influencers that will shape you into the person you aspire to be.

Image Credit: Supplied by Interviewee

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About the Authors
Jessica Allerton

Associate Editor, The Analytical Scientist

James Strachan

Over the course of my Biomedical Sciences degree it dawned on me that my goal of becoming a scientist didn’t quite mesh with my lack of affinity for lab work. Thinking on my decision to pursue biology rather than English at age 15 – despite an aptitude for the latter – I realized that science writing was a way to combine what I loved with what I was good at.

From there I set out to gather as much freelancing experience as I could, spending 2 years developing scientific content for International Innovation, before completing an MSc in Science Communication. After gaining invaluable experience in supporting the communications efforts of CERN and IN-PART, I joined Texere – where I am focused on producing consistently engaging, cutting-edge and innovative content for our specialist audiences around the world.


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