by: Aditi Risbud

Courtesy of Vignesh RamachadranJennifer Dionne, Ph.D., is an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University. As a foundation grantee and 2017 Moore Inventor Fellow she is developing a new biological tool for optical trapping and manipulation of proteins and nucleic acids.

This tool could eventually be used to manipulate molecules within living cells, and allow scientists to tackle fundamental biological questions at the single-molecule level.

In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Jennifer discusses how figure skating (and Dana Scully) inspired her passion for science, and how curiosity-driven science continues to drive her today.

What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?
I grew up in Rhode Island spending most of my summers by the beach and my winters in a figure skating rink. These activities would usually spawn questions about why there are tides, how fish breathe, or how a skater glides across ice. To get answers, my parents would often refer me to an encyclopedia, and thankfully we had the whole World Book collection. At the time, I didn’t realize being a scientist was a possible career, but I strove to learn as much as I could by reading. Meanwhile, I was a huge fan of X-Files, so I thought being a paranormal researcher seemed like a pretty cool job.

As I grew older, my interests tended toward physics. In college, I was fortunate to find work-study opportunities in a variety of research settings: the campus observatory, a magnetic resonance imaging lab and an oceanography lab.

The oceanography experience sealed the deal: despite getting seasick on the research cruises, I absolutely loved studying ocean front formation with our wave tank. I got to participate in all aspects of the project, from making dye droplets to tracing the flow, automating the image acquisition system and analyzing the flow. My advisor that summer was the first to tell me that one could make a career being a scientist – and that I would be a perfect fit – and I was hooked. I almost went to graduate school in oceanography, but the budding (at the time) field of nanoscience seemed too enticing to pass up.

What topics/areas/problems in science are you most interested in solving?
I am most interested in addressing global challenges related to health and clean energy. While distinct, these two topics are closely related by their nanoscale critical dimensions. As a result, my lab members and I spend a lot of time developing techniques to visualize dynamic, nanoscale processes. For example, we have synthesized new nanoparticles whose optical emission (i.e. color) changes based on the local mechanical forces exerted within an organism.

We have also developed new electron microscopy techniques to brwatch chemical transformations with nanometer-scale resolution. Our research efforts allow us to visualize how chemical and biomedical reactions are occurring in real time, thereby informing the design of next-generation medical treatments and renewable energy technologies.   

How do your colleagues and others help you achieve your goals?
I feel incredibly lucky to have an outstanding group of students and postdocs. We work together as a team to master existing knowledge and to explore new frontiers. My research advisees come from seven different scientific disciplines and eleven countries. This diversity means each group member brings a unique perspective and unique strengths, and provides a tremendous asset in tackling scientific challenges. My students and postdocs are like my extended family and make research fun and fulfilling. 

I also feel very grateful to work in an environment that fosters innovation and life-long education. Stanford has been a great place to do research – not only are world-experts in almost every imaginable discipline a short walk from my office, but we also have outstanding shared facilities run by extraordinarily talented staff. As a professor, I’ve been able acquire entirely new research skills through interactions with these faculty and staff.

Finally, my “academic family” is full of amazing role models – not the least of which are my Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors. The leading scientists in this community aren’t afraid to ask hard questions or drive the field into new and exciting directions. I feel very lucky to have these colleagues and mentors for inspiration, support and constructive criticism to help me achieve my goals.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
As a mom of two young boys, coffee is definitely key! More seriously, I want to make the world a better place for future generations. Our planet is faced with many grand challenges. While a single researcher (or artist or politician or philosopher) can’t tackle all of them, I think we should all do our part to contribute a solution. To that end, my lab and I engage in curiosity-driven science: we never stop asking “why?” or “what-if?”.

We hope our work addresses some portion of the grand challenges facing society, but even if not, we’ve learned something new that might lead to some completely unexpected and enabling application in the future!

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist/researcher?
My biggest limitation is time. I wish I had more – it would give me more time to spend with my students and postdocs, more time to learn new skills, more time to spend with family, more time to exercise (I love long-distance cycling), and more time to write successful proposals! But with limited time (and sometimes, limited resources) comes creativity. So as with any setback, this limitation can be an asset.

Learn more about Jennifer’s research here, and read a 2015 Stanford Magazine profile here.


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