Episode 6: Inventing the inventor

Dr. Allbritton [0:01] 

It’s got some interesting flavor notes in it that I can’t quite put my finger on. It tastes like a kind of peppermint flavored chip or some mint flavored chip of some sort.

Peter [0:14] 

Alright, you can take off the blindfold now. So what you have in your hand is actually a coconut chip. I thought it would be neat because one of the efforts in your lab is a gut on a chip, so it was pretty low hanging fruit. And the other thing that I thought was neat was if you look at a coconut cut in half, and kind of looks like a gut!

Peter [0:45]

Hi, my name is Peter, and I’ll be your host for The Gastronauts Podcast! Here at Gastronauts, we are committed to understanding communication in the body and in particular, how our gut talks to our brain. We will be taking a deep dive into the mind and motivations behind leading scientists and their work and hope that by getting to know the individuals behind the research, we can learn how different scientists think and how they approach complex problems. So come join me as we explore our inner space on The Gastronauts Podcast!

Today, we have Dr. Nancy Allbritton, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC, and the Chair of Biomedical Engineering at both UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University. A bit about Dr. Allbritton: she studied physics as an undergraduate at LSU, received her MD at Johns Hopkins and received her PhD in medical physics at MIT in the laboratory of Dr. Herman Eisen. She then went on to do a postdoc with Dr. Luber Stryer at Stanford, where she studied secondary messenger signaling. She’s been awarded numerous patents and is a scientific founder of four companies. I really want to pick your brain on the idea to go from research to establishing these companies. But I want to start by learning a little bit more about your work. From your web page, I found three major efforts: single cell enzymatic essays, a new method for analyzing and sorting cells through microrafts and these organ on a chip experiments- are these your lab’s current focuses and can you tell us a little bit more about each of these efforts in your lab?

Dr. Allbritton [2:43] 

Yeah, definitely. So those are the three major […] areas of the lab. And they seem like disconnected areas in many ways, but my lab builds gizmos and gadgets for a living, really small devices that are great for small scale sample handling, and for assays of single cells. So the first technology that we the lab started with, the idea was to measure enzymatic activity in single cells in parallel. You know, sequencing the genome has made a massive impact on science. And while all of these things are great, most of the time, what you really want to know is what’s the cells enzymatic activities are signaling behaviors, as opposed to just a list of the components. You know, you could have a list of your computer components, and maybe not know that it was a computer because a couple parts could be used to do something else. So the idea is that we could develop a technology that would have the potential to look at human samples from clinical samples, and measure signaling activity. So that’s about a third of the lab about another third of the lab, is our microarray-based sorting technology. And the idea for that technology came about when I was working with various biologists to come up with a better way for cell sorting. So we make this transparent array where the cells can just be plated down. It’s comprised of an array of little micro elements. And each element can be released on demand. So what you can essentially do is use any type of microscopy to screen the array, then have these computer algorithms or even some very simple things like for instance, rates of change, and go back and release those cells. So you can sort just 100 cells, or even 10 cells, instead of a million, which you would need, typically for flow cytometry.

Peter [4:37] 

Wow. And for those of us who are a little bit less familiar with flow cytometry, could you tell us a little bit about the technique and how it works?

Dr. Allbritton [4:44] 

Yeah, so it was an awesome technology and developed at Stanford quite some time ago by the Herzenbergs. And the idea is, you can take cells that have been detached from a surface, and then you can flow on through a very high-speed stream, and they’re interrogated with a laser-

Peter [5:00] 

Sounds intimidating.

Dr. Allbritton [5:03] 

It’s actually fun. And then as it goes by a computer makes a decision about […] a property, usually fluorescence, and we’re going to grab it and sort it or we’re going to let it go to waste. It’s a very high-speed sorting technology, but it has some, some real challenges. Typically, you need close to a million cells, there’s a lot of tubing and other regions of the device, and cells just get lost or disappear. So if you wanted to say, look for a one in a million cell or a one in a [100 million] cell, it’s difficult; it’s not one of its strong points. If you want a sort of very, very large number of cells quickly, though, it is quite excellent. And due to the fact that there’s high-speed flowing streams, there’s a lot of mechanical stresses that are applied to the cells. So a lot of delicate cells don’t survive the process, you get very, very high death rates-

Peter [5:59] 

Like a roller coaster ride, [you] go on, and you get torn apart from everyone else who was on that ride with you. And you’re certainly not going to be the same way when you come out afterwards.

Dr. Allbritton [6:08] 

Exactly, you get kind of all jumbled and mixed up. Again, a blockbuster technology that has some real strengths, but also some real weaknesses. So our technology is designed to have the exact opposite strengths and weaknesses: really, really great, almost no physical stresses or forces on the cells as they’re sorted. It’s never going to store it though millions and millions of cells, but it will sort very, very small numbers of cells very efficiently. And you can probably start up 100,000 or half a million cells reasonably well. And so each of these technologies was spun off into companies. And then our latest one, of course, is the organ on chip or the gut-on-a-chip system, both small and large intestine. And the whole idea there was to try and recapture the architecture and physiology of a living intestine all on a micro scale device. It’s not going to be as complex as a mouse, or a human, but it’s going to be a model system where you can tightly control all the variables. And in particular, what it will do is allow you to take human biopsy samples, and then rebuild a little miniaturized intestine. It’s very clear that our intestines […] have this extraordinary number of chemical and gas gradients, but understanding how these gradients impact the differentiated cells and control their behavior, and then the stem cells, especially in the human is pretty impossible right now. So our systems were designed to allow you to do that, to get different human disease models, see how they might behave differently from a normal person. You know, right now you use mice, but humans come in all different races, sexes, genotypes, and minorities, and that’s sort of wide open territory, but you can begin to […] look at how diverse populations respond by having bank tissues that you can then use to rebuild many different mini intestines on a micro device. The organoids for the intestines are actually essentially little mini-guts or mini-intestines. They have a lumen and a single layer of cells around the lumen. And they actually the cells, the differentiated cells as they die, go into the lumen. And over time, they’ll kind of open up and essentially poop out the dead cells, just like you would in a regular gut […] So it’s like the tube but it’s in a spherical shape. But they’re a little not quite right, the architecture isn’t quite right, the differentiated and the stem cells aren’t quite segregated, and the lumen of the gut or the interior is pretty inaccessible. So while it’s our breakthrough technology that […] I think will open the door to some amazing experiments by biologist and biomedical researchers, it still has some deficiencies. And our goal is to come in and build the next level, and create a tissue that actually has an accessible lumen just like the real gut does.

Peter [9:27] 

So, [that the organoid] will recapitulate everything exactly. And I think that was something that coming in as a younger scientist, I hadn’t realized the limitation of a lot of these systems that were done in a dish. I thought that we had the power to […] make the exact same things that was going on humans. And I realized that that is not the case. And this is a major progress forward in the sense that we are getting very close, we’re getting closer and closer to really mimicking what’s happening inside our body without having to go inside the body.

Dr. Allbritton [9:57] 

Right, exactly. And so now though, we can get human model systems and begin to do a lot of the screening on human systems. So you can now begin to use some of these systems to screen various human populations in people with different genetic backgrounds and make predictions. Okay, this group of people may do really well with this drug at this concentration. But in this group of people with this genotype, we’re going to need a tenfold lower concentration for the drug not to be toxic […] It’s now quite clear that our bacteria play a huge role in how we metabolize and uptake drugs, and they can turn drugs into toxic compounds, and for many drugs, [the bacteria] actually metabolize them into the active compound. So we can begin to think about understanding how we can manipulate the gut to make our drugs less toxic and more active.

Peter [10:54] 

You mentioned earlier that a lot of the projects or efforts in your lab have been spun out into companies. Could you tell us a little bit about your decision to found a company, the first company that you found was Protein Simple in 2000.

Dr. Allbritton [11:09]

Right, so I didn’t start out life thinking [I needed] to found companies, actually. I didn’t necessarily really feel that that was something I needed to do in academia. But what I discovered is, when you create a technology, if it’s a novel technology, it’s still viewed as high risk and immature. And so to go out and license that technology to a bigger company, it’s just too high risk. And it still needs a lot of investment in innovation to get from the prototype lab bench stage, to a marketable project. So what I discovered is, the only way my technologies would get out into the real world is if I started the companies that would build on them. So I had this technology, and my feeling was that if it was only limited to my lab, I wasn’t paying the taxpayer back. They had funded me to do all this innovative work, and it would just live and die in my lab. So the way to have real impact, at least if you’re a technology developer, is to have the technology go out into the real world and see other people using it. But much to my surprise, there was a huge gap. And companies just wouldn’t license your technology and start developing them. Right, I tried to license some of the first technologies and just hit brick walls. So I realized that, okay, if the technologies are going to get out into the real world and be useful to others, I need to do it, I need to found the company and I need to get it up and running. And actually, it was pretty exciting, because that’s a whole new skill set, right? And you can do great science that’s bad business. And you can have science, that’s okay. But it’s a great product. And so I actually came to enjoy it because you get to meet all sorts of different people with very different viewpoints. And the business world has a very different outlook and focus than academia. And I kind of like seeing that. But throughout all this time, I also realize that I’m not a business person, I should not pretend to be a business person. My job is to help found the company and be on the technology end. And so all of these companies have been partnerships with others. I think a characteristic of my career is always working in teams with other people. So the companies are always founded with a group of people, not just me as a founder. And we always try and pull in a business person pretty early, because there’s just a huge amount of work to go from technology feasibility to a functional company. And as an academic, I don’t have that skill set, but the business people do. And they can speak the lingo. And if we can work together as a productive team, we will do much more.

Peter [14:00] 

So it sounds like a really complementary skill set. You never felt the real push to ever leave science and go into venture capitalism or go into pharma, it was more so you realize you’re much more interested in passionate about being inventor than a salesperson, at the end of the day.

Dr. Allbritton [14:17] 

And I think that’s one of the coolest things. If you go to another lab, and you see your technology there, and they have no idea that’s your technology. And to me, that’s the ultimate mark of success for a tech lab is people using your technology. Recently for Cell Microsystems, I saw a Nature paper use the technology as a key piece of it. And it just said Cell Microsystems, and that’s pretty awesome.

Peter [14:44]

Do you have any advice for someone who is a young inventor, a new developer of a technology who is thinking about starting a company but not sure whether or not that is the right move for him or her; whether or not that is where he or she wants to see their lab perfect? Do you have any advice that you would give?

Dr. Allbritton [15:02] 

You know, it’s not for everybody, so does it get you excited? Are you willing to put in all that extra effort and time and get really excited about it. If you don’t, then it’s probably not your cup of tea, and you should spend your time doing something you get really excited about. The other thing I would say is, it’s really hard and a lot of work sometimes to start a company. So you just have to keep hammering away and staying motivated. You know, it’s like being a scientist: 95% of your experiments fail, and you have to learn to be motivated and just keep pounding away. And in the same way, starting a company is the same way. People will just often tell you what you need to do more of or why you can’t have any investment, blah, blah, blah. But you just keep hammering away and moving forward. So you have to believe in yourself. It’s hard work and believing in yourself. And being motivated, I think are the secrets. And I would say to anybody do something that gets you excited, because it’s easier to take the failures and the disappointment that are going to come no matter what you do in life. And if you’re still excited and you believe in it, you’re just going to be able to keep hammering away.

Peter [16:09]

Yeah, so it sounds like you really pushed yourself forward to not only be an investigator […] I was looking through a lot of your old work or your previous work where […] you won the Beckman Young Investigator Award on calcium signaling more recently in 2016. And 2017, you’ve been awarded on being an inventor. Has this kind of been transitioned in how you viewed yourself from an investigator on in your early stages to an inventor? Have you always thought of yourself as I am Dr. Nancy Allbritton and I am an inventor, or was there kind of a shift in that?

Dr. Allbritton [16:42] 

Yeah, […] when I was a kid, I used to work on my own car. And that was when you could actually work on your own cars and tune up the carburetors and all these other things. So I always like to build and design, you know, I used to build my own rabbit hutches, for example. So I always had that kind of bent where I like to tinker, and build and improve. So I’ve always been interested in building tools. And it’s always building a tool to solve a biological problem. And so that, I think, has been a hallmark. And even as I started my career as a professor, I was in a medical school. But even at that time, my lab was building technologies and tools to solve biological problems. And I like to think that I became smarter over time, because instead of me trying to figure out the right biology problems, over time, I began to focus more of my efforts on building the technologists and collaborating with others, rather than building the technologies and then also trying to solve the biology problems. Because I found that one, I can’t be an expert in everything. I can be really great at knowing all the engineering and analytical chemistry and physics, but trying to keep up with very fast-paced moving biology fields was going to be a struggle. And so I decided, I guess […] as I move forward [in my career] I realized what I was good at, and what I was less good at, and decided to focus more on the technology development, because I was quite clearly much better at that.

Peter [18:39] 

One of the questions that I was wondering how do you distinguish between the work you do in the laboratory and the work that is being done in these companies? Or is there kind of a distinction?

Dr. Allbritton [18:46] 

There’s actually a huge distinction. My lab is really good at coming up with new and novel ideas, and doing feasibility experiments and doing all the early stage work. But if you asked us to figure out how to make 1000 devices exactly the same, we would not be very good. Because we’re a small scale, we’re doing creative ideas and innovations. But our skill set isn’t such that we can figure out how to manufacture something that’s robust and reliable and the product is the same every time. And so if you think there’s a big gulf between demonstrating feasibility in the lab, and then getting a commercial product out. So my lab goes up to the demonstrating feasibility and utility. In my lab, we can fail. And we can fail a lot and keep going as long as we see succeed some of the time. But in a company, you need to succeed most of the time, and you need to serve the needs of a customer. And so I think the company does all of the innovation and creative thinking to get from our lab to what a customer needs, and make it reliable and robust and reproducible, and scalable. You can’t pay a massive sum per device, so how to make it manufactured at low costs. So there’s actually a very clean segregation between what the lab does and companies do. And it’s actually really good to have the companies because if people start to use our device, they’ll say, Nancy, can we have 100 of these little microarrays. And we’re like, oh, no, there’s no way graduate students in the lab can make 100 of these and send them out- one they’ll never graduate. And two, each one might be different from the next one that they make, because they’re being made by hand on a small scale. But for the company they’re easily able to serve those needs and purposes, as well as do some individual customization as long as they see a market. And then the company will also do a lot of automation innovation, which we may or may not do in the lab.

Peter [21:02] 

So the efforts in your lab are more broad horizon, seeing what’s out, developed techniques. And these companies, they’re really optimizing, refining. It’s nice to see that you are able to be involved in both: to see the entire process from start to finish, or from the inception of the idea to the customer.

Dr. Allbritton [21:21] 

Right, the company’s actually inform what we do in the lab. So you often see a lot of microdevices that while they’re great and elegant engineering, they’re never going to be a product, because they’re too complex and unreliable. And there’s too many moving parts. And biology is already complex enough. And so you can have a device with a lot of failure points. Simplicity is elegant simply is the way the best way to look at it. This, it’s really hard to design a simple device. But we try and head in that direction in the lab, because it means it’s going to be more usable by other people.

Peter [22:01]

So by working with these companies, you have simplicity in mind, you have an idea, if this isn’t usable-

Dr. Allbritton [22:07]

Then why am I doing it, and perhaps I’m wasting NIH’s money.

Peter [22:11] 

A lot of the skill set is […] the determination or dealing with failure between great science and being a […] founder of a company. But you also said there are great scientists who have failed products or great products that don’t have great science behind them. How would you optimize both of those?

Dr. Allbritton [22:27] 

Yeah, so you know, there’s all sorts of elegant technologies. And they’re used to answer fundamental questions, but they need a specialist in the lab that actually built the technology to use it. It’s so complex with so many moving parts, unless you have people in your lab that are spending all of their time keeping the equipment running or whatever; that technology is can be a breakthrough technology, but it’ll be a limited to a small scale effort. Whereas to have broader applicability. And to make it commercially viable, a lot of people have to want to buy it, there has to be profit, businesses are around to make profit. They’re not around necessarily solve science problems. And so there’s a real difference in the way you have to approach the two. And in science, […] in the lab, you want to solve a big problem. Even if it’s a technology that no one else will ever use. It’s in your lab, because it’s so complex. And that’s totally awesome. And then in the business world, the idea is to develop a technology that everyone can use that has no failure points, people can take off a shelf, figure out how to use it without becoming an expert. It’s like turning on your computer. If you have to learn how to program it, before you use it, it’ll be limited to computer scientists and that’s it. So for it to be a useful product and to be widespread, it’s got to be more turnkey and reliable, simple instructions, it’s got to fit into the workflow of people what people are already doing. So you know, when making a product, can you make it fit into the workflow of a biologist, make the form factor look simpler, make the process of using the technology have a look and feel similar to things they’re already doing. I’ll give you an example. Our first cell sorting technology, it used a laser, it was really quite an elegant technology. And we popped off these little devices, I thought it was an awesome technology. But it was very complex. And as we went around talking to business, people are like, you’ve got to lose that laser. Because it’s too complex, it’s going to be a very expensive tool and device. I don’t know how you’re going to manufacture that in a cheap form that’s going to be usable by a large number of people. And that was actually good advice. I was quite disappointed to hear that because I thought it was so awesome. But that kind of advice was really good. So my lab and I, we went back to the drawing board. We did complete design changes and then came up with a device. And you know, they’re […] somewhere around a penny apiece, you can break them. And it doesn’t cost any money. They’re easily replaceable. So it really just fit more into the look and flow.

Peter [25:28] 

That mentality of keeping it simple; Does it frame how you make your collaborations with others? How do you decide who to collaborate with?

Dr. Allbritton [25:35] 

Yeah, so we actually are collaborators in a way we look at them as our customers. So my lab is really great at building things and innovating and designing hardware micro-fabrication. But I wouldn’t say were the greatest biologists. And so the other thing we always want to do is make sure we’re building something that somebody wants. If you look at in the engineering world, they’re always lot of amazing devices that are looking for a problem to solve. And you talked to a biologist, and they’re like, so what, you know, elegant device with all sorts of bells and whistles, cool engineering, but why would anyone want to use that. So […] everything we do is a collaboration with potential end users. And we use their input and advice to drive what we do next. So they essentially tell us what’s needed. And then in some ways, we’re filling their order, if you will. If we listen to them carefully, we will understand what’s going to be useful to a broad community of people. And then we will design and tailor it. The other thing we like to do is we will make devices and we think they’re awesome. And then we give them to a biologist and they do things we did not realize they were going to do and we go. So yeah, they’ll come back and say, yeah, that worked. But this went wrong, that went wrong. And that informs us and then we’ll redesign, re-innovate, go through the whole design cycle, send it back to them. So we kind of work in this closed loop with all of our collaborators. And I think we end up with devices and tools that are much more usable and have immediate applications in end-users rather than us going out looking around and shopping for problems to try and find and use our devices far. So I tell the biologists and biomedical researchers, my job is to build a technology to enable you to do something you’ve never done before, and to make you famous. And if I make you famous, I fulfilled my goal, because I’ve created a really useful new technology that a lot of other people will want to use.

Peter [27:48] 

Yeah, one thing that just popped into my head was [on] how we present our information. A lot of times in research, we think about all the steps that could have gone wrong, and how we optimize these steps in order to get this system working. But if you think of it from kind of a company standpoint, it’s not so much, “oh, these are the things that could go wrong. These are all the things that you can do with it. This is why this is why it’s been optimized for you.” Right, having seen kind of both types of presentation styles are both ways of presenting the same product. Have you thought a lot about how researchers could be changing how they’re presenting their work? Or how they’re pitching their ideas?

Dr. Allbritton [28:26] 

Yeah, so that’s a good question. I think, you know, first of all, communication is everything in science. If you can’t communicate in a simple, clear and exciting way, your work is almost useless. Particularly, as time goes by, it’s very clear that we need to communicate to the public a lot better than what we’ve done. So making our science interpretable to a person’s everyday life. And so you can think of you know, the person on the street, how you show how your work is important into their life and can make their life better. But even as you go up in complexity, and you’re presenting your work to a scientist, how can you present your tools and technologies as not, gee, I got this great technology. But as you said, this is what you can do for you. And make it simple and clear and make the presentation style simple and clear. So I think that’s a skill set that we all need to work on in science, and to make sure we don’t disappear into jargon-land, which a lot of us tend to do, because it’s comfortable, we understand that. But it’s unfortunately, I think does science a disservice when one speaking to other scientists, but also speaking to the public.

Peter [29:41] 

Definitely, I value communication, I think it is important. One of the mantras that I follow is it’s important to be able to communicate effectively with everyone, right? Because if you’re speaking only in a way that you understand, no one else is really going to understand. So you’re not sharing the knowledge.

Dr. Allbritton [29:59] 

Exactly. And I think that you have to be able to recognize who you’re speaking to, and be adept at tailoring the content and level of your message for a different audience. So for example, you know, speaking to a gastroenterology group would be very different than speaking to a micro-fab group at a meeting. You know, I often go and give talks to high school students, which is a totally different style of presentation. Although the base concepts are the same, it has to be presented very differently and with a different style.

Peter [30:35] 

And an emphasis in your lab, I know you’ve mentioned is teamwork and mentorship, which kind of go hand in hand. And I was wondering, when you’re going from training the vast number of undergrads to grad students to postdocs, is there something that has encouraged you to maintain this role in education? And is there something that you’re looking for, in particular students when you’re accepting or deciding to mentor them?

Dr. Allbritton [30:57] 

In some ways, they need to have technical skills, I don’t care if they have the skill sets in my lab, I want them to be motivated. Often, it’s not the brightest people that succeed, it’s those that are willing to work hard, and those that are motivated, and those that are persistent. So I look for motivation, persistence, willing to work hard, ability to take constructive feedback, and not become defensive. If I look at the people that succeed the most, those are the qualities people have.

Peter [31:24] 

Is that regardless across the board, from someone who’s relatively new-

Dr. Allbritton [31:30] 

At all levels. Understanding that there’s no gimmicks or shortcuts to working hard, you know, working hard is what gets you there, you want students to understand that. And so my sense is that I like students that have those qualities. You want students that are a little adventurous, that will just try stuff and aren’t worried about failing. Because often I can’t approach a field with pre-conceptions. And I’ll tell my students, oh, that’s a really bad idea. I don’t think that’s going to work. Fortunately, they sometimes completely ignore me. And it’s like, “wow, what a brilliant idea. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.” So you also want people with a little bit of adventure, who like being ready to fall off that bicycle, you know, is a good thing, [people that are] just going out there and taking on new challenges and saying, I’m just going to try it and see what happens. And not saying well, I only do this, and this is what I do, because I do it well, but [people that are] willing to branch out and try different things.

Peter [32:33]

And on the flip side, these are skills that would be great for students, what are skills that you hope to nurture in students or trainees?

Dr. Allbriton [32:39]

Yeah, so I think communication verbal, I think written skills are extraordinarily important. I started my career probably without necessarily the best writing skills. So technical writing, having a clear, concise message in grant writing. I think most of us that are in science, at least engineers and chemists and physicists, we’re in those areas, because we don’t like to write. But realizing that still you’re going to have to learn to write and write and the better you write, the farther you will go in your career, even though it’s not your most necessarily favorite activity.

Peter [33:15] 

How do you go about improving your writing?

Dr. Allbritton [33:18] 

Yeah, for the students, you know, honestly, it’s hard work. There’s no gimmicks. The students in my lab, they have to write proposals for their research, I think I torture them to death, make them rewrite, and rewrite. And I think they think it’s pretty funny sometimes, because they get documents back from me, everything’s crossed out, but at the end, I think they develop sort of a camaraderie. Okay, we’re surviving Nancy’s editing. And so the idea is that through their career, we just iterate their papers, we edit their thesis, their edits, we edit their proposals to NIH. We edit and we just go round and round editing over and over. And you can begin to see them get better as they progress through the years. And people start out at different levels, some people are quite good when they start out. And so there’s not so much editing, but other people have a little bit more work to do. But the harder they work, they do better and going through this cycle. And then I think learning to work with others that aren’t like you- the lone wolf scientist, I think is pretty much a thing of the past. Teams of people work together, it’s quite clear will achieve far greater than someone working by themselves. If you look at all the breakthrough science these days, it’s teams of people from different nationalities, different backgrounds. So learning to be flexible, and work with others and tolerate others different working styles, I think is fundamentally critical for success in academia, government, industry, national labs, or even if you decide to be a teaching professional, the more you’re able to navigate and work as a team, the better off you’re going to be.

Peter [35:01] 

Yeah, oftentimes, it is challenging being that person who’s inserting themselves in a situation where everyone else has a groupthink mentality. Did you ever feel that as a woman entrepreneur in the biomedical sciences, that you had to face a lot of these challenges moving into kind of fields that have traditionally been dominated by men?

Dr. Allbritton [35:19] 

Definitely. And I’m old enough that there weren’t a lot of women, particularly in chemistry and physics. When I started my career, and things weren’t going right. I always think, how can I do better? You can say, well, it’s someone else’s fault. They didn’t treat me right, or they did this blah, blah, blah. But I tend to have a look at the world differently. And I think no matter who you are, you’re going to end up in situations where you’re not treated fairly, your age or sex or your race. And, to me at least through my career, it was always better to think how can I do better? Okay, if this is not a good line for me, for whatever reason, what direction can I take where, where I’ll see success, and try not to ruminate and get stuck in one area, but to say, “okay, let’s take a step back, and I’m going to go in a different direction. I’m going to try something else.” So I made some big changes in my career either, because I thought I want to do something, but I decided it was not a good idea, or ended up in a situation where it wasn’t quite right for something. And so the idea was that I always decided [to follow was] to take a step back and go in a different direction and push my goals. And I think that has served me well. So I kind of look at the world like that. And if you’re a little persistent, and you believe in yourself, and you’re highly motivated, you can just keep plugging along. And in the end, I come out ahead just from always thinking: okay, this is not working the way I’m doing it. And I just, I’ve got to figure it out myself and how to move forward and get advice from others, you know. When I started out my career, it was difficult to find anyone who looked like me in physics. And so it helped to be highly motivated and determined. But as my career went on, more and more people started to look like me. And that made life easier.

Peter [37:13] 

Yeah, so it sounds like, it’s not just tinkering with devices is tinkering with your mindset as well. Thinking about how we approach problems, not just from a device standpoint, but also from a fundamentally how do I think about this? And how is it affecting me? Because I was wondering, what’s next for Dr. Nancy? You have achieved so much, where do you see yourself going?

Dr. Allbritton [37:35] 

A lot of people have been asking me that. And I don’t have a great answer. Every 10 to 13 years, I’ve tried to reinvent myself. So I’m in a phase now where I’m working to reinvent myself. So I have a lot of directions, I’m kind of exploring and thinking about, and I don’t want to spill any secrets quite yet. But I also think, you know, to keep fresh and kind of on your toes, sometimes if you’re doing the same thing over and over, you begin to take things for granted. And that’s never good. So my sense is you kind of need to shake up your life every once in a while by just taking on a new adventure or taking on some new risks. And you know, different people have different time scales on which they do it. And my timescale has been like every 10 to 13 years. So I’m beginning to think about kind of what’s next. For Nancy Allbritton I’ve reached I’ve done a number of things, what are some of the big things I still haven’t done that I think that I could do? And you know, as you get older, you think, are there better ways I can contribute to the world other than just running a lab or starting a company? And what are the opportunities? And how can I have a bigger impact going forward? One thing that’s really good about getting older is your skill sets have expanded greatly and your ability to work with people and think about problems. At least I think now mine are considerably better. And I have more patience than I use to as a younger person. So you want to begin to think about how to use those skill sets, and just even begin to continue to broaden your impact. So I don’t have an answer for your yet but stay tuned.

Peter [39:12] 

That’s exciting. Thank you so much for agreeing to be on The Gastronauts Podcast.

Dr. Allbritton [39:16] 

Thank you for having me. It’s been fantastic to have a conversation.

Peter [39:32] 

Well, Dr. Nancy Allbritton really took us on an adventure, from a product idea to its execution and implementation. And along the way, we learned the importance of communication. Science is done in teams of varying expertise. And being able to tweak and tailor the way you convey information will help make your message that much more effective. So thank you all so much for listening, and we’ll see you on the next episode. For more of our content, you can follow us on Twitter @gutbrains, or visit our website at thinkgastronauts.com. The Gastronauts Podcast would be impossible without the incredible team that we have here. Meredith Schmehl is our producer and theme music composer. Dr. Laura Rupprecht is our social media manager. And special thanks to the founders of Gastronauts, Dr. Diego Bohórquez and the Bohórquez laboratory.