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One scientist’s ‘nerdy delight’ drives her to solve problems

Frances Barron got hooked on biochemistry through watching sea urchin fertilization in an undergraduate lab. As Vice President of Biology and Regulatory Affairs at Nanomedical Diagnostics, a biotech company in San Diego, California, Frances asks herself how the complex processes of forming life can be harnessed to solve medical problems.

Frances, a 1998 Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist, believes the next generation of scientists need to think about topics that will fascinate them. Then they’ll find a career path that will be most rewarding.

Read our interview with Frances below to learn how she defines “nerdy delight” and find out how working pro bono turned into a full-time role at Nanomedical Diagnostics.

Frances Barron

WHAT A TYPICAL DAY IS LIKE FOR HER: Some days I’m at the bench with my very talented research associates helping them solve biology and nanotechnology questions.

Other days I’m at my desk writing grants and papers with collaborators, designing experiments that support the research and development of different product pipelines for the company, figuring out the appropriate regulatory strategies for our first in vitro diagnostic product for Lyme disease, and responding to email with private and public collaborators and users of our new technology.

Now I deal more with strategic planning and execution of company research goals, while facilitating the growth and development of young scientists training on my team and the company as a whole. Nanomedical Diagnostics believes in mentoring the next generation, which is why we offer summer internships and are part of the support for Dr. Alec Barron’s Competency X, a digital badging program supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nerdy delight: a giddy feeling when uncovering something in STEM that drives you to work nonstop.

Every day is unique, fast paced, and exciting, which is the typical landscape in a company where you wear many hats.

HOW SHE GOT INTO THE NANOMEDICAL FIELD: I was a regulatory affairs consultant and medical writer fresh out of my postdoctoral fellowship from Stanford. Dr. Brett Goldsmith shared his idea for a nanotechnology diagnostic company, and I understood the challenges he would face from regulatory and market clearance, as well as the biology of testing human samples. Inspired to help in whatever way I could, I said I’d work pro-bono to help with their early regulatory proposals to the FDA.

Nanomedical Diagnostics believes in mentoring the next generation.

While I’d enjoyed my time as a consultant, especially since it enabled me to work from home during the early days of having my first child, I was really looking forward to integrate my regulatory affairs knowledge with my unique and broad knowledge of biology. When they agreed to hire me, I had no idea how rewarding and challenging each day would be.

The human genome project set me on the path to biochemistry.

It’s been paramount for us to communicate in the common language of science as we discovered novel solutions to a technology that seamlessly integrates biology, chemistry, nanomaterials, and electronics — AGILE technology. We have an amazing team of talented women and men who have worked diligently to achieve our first life science product in an unbelievably short amount of time. I never would have imagined working in nanomaterials or for a life science and diagnostics company, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

HOW SEA URCHIN FERTILIZATION INSPIRED HER: My love of science seems to have been an innate drive in me. Through my desire to learn the mysteries of the animal kingdom when I was young, it progressively turned to smaller and smaller biological entities, until I came upon the study of the formation of life itself.

I wanted to know what controlled those processes. What was the map?

I wanted to know what controlled those processes. What was the map, the blueprint? I soaked up everything related to biology in search of answers to these questions.

When I got to high school and learned about Mendel, genetic inheritance, and Watson and Crick, I began to get this picture in my mind that everything could be understood from just four little letters — ATGC. If we only had the Rosetta stone, we could end genetic diseases by providing gene therapy or regenerate lost tissue by harnessing the power of stem cells.

The human genome project really set me on the path to seek out a degree in biochemistry and cell biology. I remember the moment I realized I’d found the specific field of study that inspired me to go to graduate school. I took my first developmental biology lab and I was in love. This was my “nerdy delight.” The lab was on the concept of blocking polyspermy, where sea urchin eggs and sperm were combined, and the fertilization event was observed and documented under the microscope. Here was the moment that two gametes came together to form new biological life, which randomly combined the contributions of both parents to create a unique sea urchin. I wanted to understand how that happened.

Everything could be understood from just four little letters — ATGC.

How does the biochemistry work to enable cells to divide symmetrically, then asymmetrically, to set up three distinct germ layers? Then, how do those germ layers communicate with one another to create an operational organism? It was a mystery that it ever went right, and right so often! Millions of years of evolution, of random events just like the one I was looking at, were responsible for all of the diversity on the planet. I was hooked.

WHAT COMPETING IN THE 1998 INTEL STS MEANT: I remember having to go to a photography store to have film developed for the pictures of my histology slides. Now I think about the dramatic changes in technology with digital cameras, microscopes, and the breadth of available fluorophores that revolutionized molecular and cellular biology.

Intel STS was instrumental in opening doors and knocking down barriers.

When I placed as a semifinalist, I realized that all that hard work, the hours spent after school and on weekends at the lab, had led to something special in science. I was able to stand proud for the small contribution I made to science in my own way. That award really gave me confidence to pursue a career in STEM.

Intel STS was instrumental in opening doors and knocking down barriers. My dream was to attend UCSD and major in biology. When I found out that my major was impacted and that I may not be able to declare it, I was nearly crushed. I received a notice later that I’d be admitted to the major without having to complete the prerequisites. I believe it was my efforts and the work at UCSD during high school for Intel STS that demonstrated my drive. There are clear advantages to beginning early and being supported by more experienced mentors in the field.

HOW SCIENCE WRITING RELATES TO SCIENCE RESEARCH: No matter what you do in your life, you will always have to communicate your ideas to others. The first lesson I took away from my experience with Westinghouse STS and the research that led up to the competition was that I needed to learn how to express my knowledge in a concise and understandable way, both verbally and in writing.

No matter what you do in your life, you will always have to communicate your ideas to others.

Science is not just about discovery, but it is also about passing on the learned knowledge, and not only disseminating it to our colleagues and peers, but also to the community at large. Good scientific writing can lead, for example, to the success of a peer-reviewed publication, an NIH grant award, or market clearance from the FDA.

Science is not just about discovery, but also passing on knowledge.

Publications lend credibility to your research, and may lead to grant awards providing funding to continue your research, and both of these efforts may support the clinical trials required to provide a compelling argument to the FDA regarding the safety and efficacy of your drug or medical device.

It all starts with the written word, and the more effective you are at this form of communication, ultimately the more effective you will be in moving your scientific research along.

ADVICE FOR OTHERS INTERESTED IN STEM: My husband, Dr. Alec Barron, a high school chemistry teacher, and some of his AP chemistry students came up with the term “nerdy delight” to describe the giddy feeling you get when you’re uncovering something in science or math that drives you to work on solving the problem nonstop day and night until you figure it out.

When I speak at high schools about my pathway to science, I point out that scientific knowledge and topics to research span the spectrum of the entire universe. As young scientists and mathematicians go out to discover the unknown, they should focus on the topics that interest them, and give them their “nerdy delight.” These are the areas of interest that will drive them naturally to have fruitful careers.

Scientific knowledge and research topics span the spectrum of the entire universe.

The next generation of scientists, from high school through college, should be challenged to find their “nerdy delight.” They should think about what will fascinate and hold their interest and they will find the career path that will be the most enjoyable, confounding, and rewarding experience of their lives.

The next generation of scientists should be challenged to find their ‘nerdy delight.’

I firmly believe that it is our job as mentors who have found this “nerdy delight” pathway to facilitate this experience in our young peers by offering opportunities to wear different scientific hats, and explore solving problems with questions and solutions that may even challenge the way we currently think. Through mentorship and forward thinking innovation can be created, which will drive science and math into the next leap to the future.

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