As a child tinkering with household appliances in Michigan, Karlin Bark imagined a career in the automotive industry. But a class in haptics—the science of touch—took her in a new direction, eventually resulting in her efforts as a doctoral candidate to improve prosthetic limb fittings. Now a postdoctoral researcher, Bark has worked on tactile feedback systems to help surgeons during robot-assisted procedures, and she hopes to advance stroke rehabilitation, too. She is one of five female postdocs to receive the 2011 L’Oréal USA Fellowships for Women in Science.
In addition to Bark, this year’s L’Oréal USA Fellowships recognized Sasha Devore’s neuroscience research, which might someday yield new insights to brain injuries or even diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and Tijana Ivanovic’s investigations related to the spread of viruses. Winner R. Blythe Towal is pursuing “smarter” robotic strategies, and Trisha Andrew’s work might set the stage for unique solar cells and light-emitting diodes based on “color molecules” (organic chromophores).
The L’Oréal USA Fellowships program “does a lot to highlight a very important need in our country, which is to recruit, retain, and encourage women in science and engineering,” said U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), a physicist, during the fellowships presentation luncheon on 15 September. “We can’t afford to lose any talent, and for too many years, people have been given overt or subtle signals to do something else, when indeed they should be contributing to our technological and scientific expertise.”
Two other speakers—U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)—agreed. “What L’Oréal is doing to encourage women in science is fabulous,” Hutchison said.
After recounting the stories of various women trailblazers, Hutchison told the five fellowship recipients: “Those women were trailblazers and you stand on their shoulders, but there is a whole new category of women coming up who are going to stand on your shoulders.”
Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS Education and Resources, said the L’Oréal Fellowships program was especially rigorous in 2011. “There were 219 applications across 27 scientific disciplines, including biochemistry, ecology, plant sciences, immunology, biophysics, engineering, and mathematics,” Malcom said before bestowing the awards in the Kennedy Caucus Room on Capitol Hill. “The five Fellows represent electronics, haptics, neuroscience, computational neuroscience, and virology.”
The highly competitive program is administered by a team at AAAS led by Yolanda George, deputy director for Education and Human Resources. Launched in 2003, the fellowships are independently juried in a two-step process managed by AAAS. A first round of review involves an interdisciplinary panel of 26 unbiased scientists and engineers who evaluate the entire set of applications. A distinguished panel, composed of six eminent scientists and engineers, then makes the final selections, Malcom explained.
Each fellowship recipient will receive up to $60,000 to continue her postdoctoral research. Professional-development workshops and networking opportunities are additional benefits of the awards. This year’s fellowships honored the following five outstanding women postdoctoral researchers, listed in alphabetical order:
“In 2003, I started working in an organic chemistry lab, and I never wanted to stop because there’s really nothing like the smell of chloroform in the morning,” Andrew joked as she received her fellowship plaque.
An organic chemist, she will investigate the interaction of organic chromophores, or “color molecules”—highly colored and often-luminescent molecules used as dyes—with interesting optoelectronic materials known as “quantum dots.” If the work proceeds as planned, it might result in solar cells that more easily collect light, as well as light-emitting diodes that transform electricity into colored light. “I think it’s pretty incredible that something as simple as color could change the way we power the world,” Andrew has said.
Andrew earned her bachelor of science degree from the University of Washington in Seattle. She completed her Ph.D. degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working for Timothy M. Swager. She’s currently a postdoc in the Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Lab at MIT, having been encouraged by Vladimir Bulovic to pursue electrical engineering. Karlin Bark:
Stroke rehabilitation often involves the repeated gentle touch of a physical therapist. Bark, a mechanical engineer, will work with clinical specialists at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute to develop, refine, and test new technology, based on haptic feedback, intended to help patients recover from strokes faster. Specifically, an affordable upper-limb rehabilitation system is envisioned to let survivors retrain key motor pathways at home, between visits to the clinic. The technology should be especially helpful to patients who cannot eat or use hand tools because of a condition called “ideomotor limb apraxia,” which impairs motor functioning in both arms. Someday, the same technology might prove useful to coaches, dance trainers, and motor-skills educators, too.
Bark received her bachelor of science from the University of Michigan and her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University under the guidance of Mark Cutkosky. She’s now a postdoc in Katherine Kuchenbecker’s Haptics Group within the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’ve been so incredibly fortunate in my life to have a series of teachers and mentors who have recognized my interests and pushed me—sometimes subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly—toward the path that I’m on today,” Devore said at the luncheon. “I’m absolutely delighted to have the chance to thank my public school teachers and mentors who devoted their careers to sharing the joys of science with children like myself.”
Devore’s research focuses on understanding how and when different areas of the brain engage with each other in communication. Her fellowship will allow her to investigate large ensembles of neurons in awake, behaving animals to better understand the function of feedback pathways in early sensory processing. In particular, she hopes to unravel the role of feedback in the basal forebrain, a region critical for attention, learning, and memory. Basal forebrain degeneration is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. “My hope is that this information will lead to improved therapeutic interventions and someday help people with brain injuries,” she has said.
After receiving her bachelor of science degree from MIT, Devore completed her Ph.D. degree in the Harvard-MIT Department of Health Science and Technology. She’s now a postdoc in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, where she is supported by a Ruth L. Kirchstein National Research Service Award.
A native of Serbia whose early interests included mathematics and acting, Ivanovic credits teacher Branka Dobrkovic with igniting her passion for biology. Later, in the lab of Cecilia Cheng-Mayer, Ivanovic became keenly concerned with how viruses cross the membrane barrier of the cell they infect. The L’Oréal Fellowship will help her create a special tool—a customized Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence Microscope—to look at how individual virus particles fuse with the cells they invade. The specific steps involved in influenza virus fusion are thus far poorly understood. “Basically, I’ll be filming molecular movies to help us find when the virus is most vulnerable during the fusion process, so we can find the best targets to attack,” she has explained.
Ivanovic received a bachelor of science degree with college and departmental honors from the University of California, Los Angeles, then worked at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center before entering the Harvard Virology Program, where she earned her Ph.D. degree. Today, she is a postdoc in the Harvard lab of Stephen Harrison, performing her work remotely from the University of Colorado, Boulder.
R. Blythe Towal:
When searching for a friend in a crowd, how do we know where to look? How do we move our hands to quickly search for keys in the dark? By studying these and other examples of “active sensing,” Towal hopes to learn more about the neural basis of perception and then apply those principles to create more intelligent artificial systems such as robots or prosthetic limbs. Specifically, for example, she hopes to use her fellowship to design and build new instruments that measure human eye movements under natural conditions such as walking down a street.
“My research focuses on understanding how humans gather visual information and perceive the world by studying their eye movements in response to their real-life surroundings,” she has explained. “This information can help us develop algorithms so that all kinds of robots can gather data more efficiently for us, and ultimately ‘think smarter.’”
Towal earned her bachelor of science degree from Georgia Tech and her master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University. She previously received a Presidential Fellowship Award from Northwestern and a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health. She is currently pursuing her research at the California Institute of Technology in Christof Koch’s lab.
The L’Oréal Fellowships for women postdocs are part of a broader L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program, established 13 years ago. This year’s North American winner of that competition was Jillian F. Banfield, a University of California, Berkeley biochemist and geomicrobiologist, who was recognized for her groundbreaking work on how microbes alter rocks and interact with the natural world. Two prior North American laureates, Elizabeth Blackburn and Ada E. Yonath, subsequently received Nobel Prizes, said Rebecca Caruso, an executive vice president for corporate communications with L’Oréal USA.
The awards luncheon on Capitol Hill, sponsored by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), drew an array of policymakers and science leaders, including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, as well as the French ambassador, plus many science-interested college and high-school students. For example, high school students Melissa Massers, Ziomara Medero, and Leah Hersh, part of an all-girls engineering club at Chantilly Academy in Virginia, were on hand with Career Experience Specialist Joan Ozdogan. They spoke enthusiastically about their efforts to apply sensor technology to walking canes used by people with blindness, and their career goals in science and engineering.
Learn more about the L’Oréal USA Fellowships for Women in Science Program.