Engineering Research Outcomes Through Collaboration
By Romi Carrell Wittman
BIO5 Director Jennifer Barton is a unique force in the halls of academia. Her background spans both the private and public sectors, from the practical to the theoretical, from electrical engineering to optical sciences to biomedical engineering. Barton brings each of these skills to bear as she leads BIO5’s charge to develop creative, bold solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges.
This varied expertise – Barton’s approach to her own career – pairs perfectly with BIO5’s interdisciplinary DNA, which has become an international model for translating scientific discoveries and technology advancement into innovative solutions and commercial opportunities.
“I started off as an electrical engineer,” she said. “Everyone in my family is an engineer. My parents believed that you should get the kind of degree that would translate into a good job.”
Barton worked at former aerospace company McDonnell Douglas, specifically on a space station project. However, over time she discovered that her interest lay in the biomedical field. When she made plans in 1994 to return to school to earn her doctorate, she enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin’s biomedical engineering Ph.D. program.
After graduation, she explored her options. “I was an older Ph.D. student,” she said. “I figured I’d go back into industry because I didn’t want to do a postdoc.” A postdoc is a temporary position that allows a Ph.D. student to continue their training as a researcher and gain the skills necessary for an academic career.
Instead, she was drawn to the University of Arizona’s biomedical engineering program and took a faculty position in 1998. “The program really blew me away,” she said. “I realized that it would be a very different type of job, and they appreciated my industry experience.”
She said UArizona faculty and staff offered much needed support and mentorship in those early days. “I was fortunate that so many people invested time to help me learn this whole new world of academia.”
In addition to her work at BIO5, Barton is the Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Professor in biomedical engineering, as well as a professor of electrical, computer and biosystems engineering, optical sciences and medical imaging. She has published more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and continues her work to engineer tools that will help detect cancer earlier and more efficiently. She and her team have developed miniature endoscopes precisely for this purpose and are exploring the suitability and efficacy of such tools in real-world application.
She joined BIO5 as assistant director in 2009, and in 2015 when then-BIO5 director Dr. Fernando Martinez moved to another leadership position as director of UArizona’s Asthma & Airway Disease Research Center, she took over as interim BIO5 director. A national search for a permanent director followed. Barton threw her hat in the ring and successfully secured the top spot in 2017.
Barton is committed to BIO5’s mission of furthering interdisciplinary research excellence and serving Arizona and the community. She has a passion for training the next generation STEM workforce. “When it comes to scientific advancement, I’d love to see a future where research and education all across campus is just like it is at BIO5, with disciplines working alongside each other,” she said.
Throughout her career and especially at BIO5, Barton has built a reputation for bringing people together, leading and mentoring them, and melding seemingly disparate research areas into collaborative endeavors. As an example, by connecting plant scientists and cancer biologists they might find that they have been studying the same gene. By sharing information and unique expertise they can advance both their research programs.
UArizona President Dr. Robert Robbins said of Barton, “Her success as a biomedical engineer and her commitment to community impact, mentorship and teaching make her an ideal leader for this important institute.”
Barton said serving as BIO5 director means acting as a connector not only between academic disciplines, but also with the business and commercial communities. “Research to innovation is a long process,” she said. “We must rely on partnerships and relationships to succeed.”
She said the most satisfying part of her role as BIO5 director is to be able to offer the support to keep scientists focused on outcomes. “I help keep ideas and connections moving forward with the collective goal of advancing health.”
Asked to sum up her role at BIO5, Barton said: “BIO5 is a combination of academia and industry. We’re better at collaboration and translation than most universities and we’re always getting better.”
She added that BIO5 will always be part of her career. “I will definitely be a member of BIO5 for my faculty career. Its mission and structure are critical for my research.”