Interviewer: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewee: Andy Bertera Executive Director of Marketing and Sales, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Happy New Year everyone and welcome back to the Lessons From Lab and Life podcast. I'm your host Lydia Morrison and I hope that our podcast offers you some new perspective.
In this episode, we'd like to encourage you to nominate yourself or someone you know for the 2019 Passion in Science Awards. 2019 will mark the third round of the awards, which recognize those in various fields of science dedicated to making a difference. Today, I'm joined by Andy Betera, who's the Executive Director of Marketing and Sales at New England Biolabs. Andy's going to share with us a bit more about the Passion in Science Awards, and introduce us to some of the winners from the 2014 and 2016 awards.
Hi Andy, thanks so much for joining me today.
Hey Lydia, it's a pleasure to be here.
I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit about how with the Passion in Science Awards hosted by New England Biolabs was conceived.
Yeah, happy to. The Passion in Science Awards actually goes back to 2013. At that particular time, we were contemplating what to do for New England Biolabs 40th anniversary and, as you can imagine, there were lots of good ideas. Should we have a big party? Should we go out and have an advertising campaign to tell the world about all the great things we've done? When we thought about those different ideas they didn't really feel like they were us. NEB's corporate values, as you might be aware, are humility, passion, and being genuine and all those ideas, particularly a party, didn't really feel being very humble.
One of the values is passion, and particularly passion for science, and as a consequence with that we thought, "Well, really we should involve more science and more of our customers in celebrating this award." The idea was conceived to try, and identify customers who share those values with us that we could really celebrate the achievements they've made more than just celebrating our own 40th birthday party.
What a great way to be able to recognize the efforts that our customers put into their science, and how dedicated they are to their work while being able to celebrate them in a way that reflects the values of New England Biolabs.
It was. The actual events that we've had have been really inspiring. Seeing some of the people that won these awards, and getting to know them as individuals and seeing the work they were doing was truly awe-inspiring.
It must've had a big impact on the employees of New England Biolabs. Can you tell us a little bit more about how people felt about having these customers, these individuals visit the company?
Yes, definitely. We tried to involve as many as the NEB staff in the whole process as we could, so NEB staff were actually involved in reading the different submissions for the awards, and actually voting for them, so it wasn't like a high-powered committee making decisions, it was actually involving as many of the team as we could.
Then, the actual awards themselves we had the awardees come to our headquarters in Ipswich, Massachusetts and actually either give presentations or talk about the good work they were doing. As many of the company as we could were invited to that series of presentations, so they could actually hear about all the great work these individuals were doing. As I said, I personally found it inspiring, but I think I can speak for most of the company that they also did.
Yeah, I was at the 2016 Passion in Science Awards and it's funny because, certainly, they were all inspiring. It's amazing what people have been able to accomplish in their careers, some of them very early in their careers. It is certainly inspiring and offers a certain level, I think, of perspective because you walk out of that room thinking, "Wow, what amazing things these individuals have accomplished."
Yeah, very much so. As I mentioned, one of our values is humility, and it was very humbling. You go home at the end of the evening and you put your feet up, and you watch the television, or whatever, and you're thinking, "I shouldn't be doing that. I should be trying to do something that these great individuals are doing, or maybe even a small percentage of it."
Absolutely. Could you describe the different categories of the Passion in Science Awards?
Yes, happy to. We have four categories that form the awards. The first one is science mentorship, this is about individuals who, in addition to just teaching, have a certain way of trying to encourage and excite individuals in different areas of science. The next one is the environment, which is an important area to NEB in terms of some of the activities we do to reduce our environmental impact and footprint. The third is humanitarian causes, where a researcher may be, I don't know, studying the cause of a certain cancer, or something like that, but then they're also trying to help, unfortunately, patients or a family associated with those diseases. Then, the last one is arts, this one perhaps there's always a question of is it an art, is it a science? What we're trying to do here is actually realize that to come very closely together, and there's some excellent artists who are also fantastic scientists.
Andy, could you share with us some of the stories that stand out in your memory from the winners from 2014 and 2016?
That's a tough one. Everyone's stories were unique and worthy of their own mention, but a few that definitely stick in my memory. One from 2014, Shelly Xie who was, at the time, at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. You mentioned the word stories there and, I think, she gave a fantastic way of actually telling her story.
She, at the time, was studying neglected tropical diseases and actually used something called sand art to actually tell her story. The best way to describe this is if you imagine a tray of sand above a light box, and then she was using her hand and other tools to basically animate a story. In this case, how a mother and her child are actually infected with this particular disease, and how she was coping with that. It was just a very creative way of telling a moving story with a scientific backdrop.
Let’s have a listen to part of the presentation that Shelly’s gave when she was visiting New England Biolabs for the Passion in Science Award ceremony.
(Shelly Xie) The Passion in Science award in arts and creativity really holds a special place in my heart. I'm currently pursuing to become a doctor. My inspiration actually came from volunteering as a young artist during high school in a hospital. Through visiting various units in the hospital, and drawing over 700 portraits for patients and families I have encountered and witnessed overflowing joy of mothers while they're holding their newborns, and I have witnessed excitement of elderly as they finally finding someone to chat with. At the same time, I've also witnessed conflicted feelings of family members as they watch their loved ones suffering and battling the serious illnesses, as well as the grief of mothers losing their children.
Through this experience I learned the importance of hope and courage, and the importance of meeting people and connecting with them on a deeper level. Also, as important, I learned the power of art to not only represent objects and their physical beauty, but also they really have the power to convey a message to heal patients, and to be a medicine.
Can you tell us about another one of your favorites?
Certainly, one of, probably, the most moving stories was the story that Paul McDonald told us. He's actually at Virginia Tech, and he was involved with two other authors, but he was actually the only scientific advisor to the Vice Chief of Staff for the Army. What his work was to actually analyze the various factors in a database of individuals from the Army to try, and identify individuals at risk, in particular individuals who were at risk of suicide.
I remember very well he told the audience, NBE staff about the work that he was doing, and it was very emotional. He was emotional, and there was this period of silence, basically, while he was trying to compose himself to tell the next story. It was just really impactful, and I think highlighted his own passion for this subject matter which was, obviously, outside of his core research area.
(Paul McDonald) While we made a lot of recommendations, and the suicide rate has come down in the active duty there are still part of the reserve forces that are still struggling, and there are still a lot of people that don't know where to go to get help.
Are there any other winners from the 2014 Passion in Science Awards that you'd like to highlight?
Another one I'd highlight was actually Lori Baker. She's actually incidentally, also from Texas at Baylor University. I think her story is really one about passion, if I recall correctly she was a mother and talked about her work to actually try, and identify human remains that were actually found in paupers' graves close to the border with Mexico in Texas. She was using human identity techniques, forensic techniques to actually identify those individuals, and really bring some closure to those parents, or individuals ... or relatives rather of the individuals that had actually gone missing.
I remember she actually said something along the lines of parents had come to her and say, "Now, I have a place to be with my son or daughter," and it really showed the work she was doing had meaning not just to her, but to the individuals she was trying to support.
(Lori Baker) My training is in ancient DNA. "You can do something from a 70,000-year-old bison, can you possibly look at this 14-year-old bone because we need to identify this person that died in a conflict situation," and so the more I that the more interesting and enriched I felt.
Which presentations from 2016 really stand out in your mind?
Again, there are a number. One that I particular particularly enjoyed was interacting with Chris Martine who's actually from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. If I recall correctly, Chris is actually a plant biologist, but also a botanist. As he said himself, it's easy to get his students to touch screens on their computers, and mobile devices, but what he wanted to do was to get them to get out in the wilderness, and actually touch plants. He came up with, obviously, field trips and things, as you might expect, but also developed a YouTube series that he actually called Plants Are Cool Too. I think what really I enjoyed when I interacted with Chris was his enthusiasm for the subject, which was really contagious, and contagious to students.
Yeah, he's a very animated character.
(Chris Martine) I want you to imagine that you're going to a party, and it's not that much of a fun party. It's a party where you don't know anybody, you walk in the door you don't recognize a face, you don't know anybody's names, they don't know your name. This is a party where you feel really uncomfortable, it's hard to imagine that this is a place where you want to spend much time. You don't feel invested, you feel awkward, maybe even intimidated, maybe even a little bit afraid. It's not a place that you feel like you belong to.
Now, I want you to imagine another party that's the opposite, maybe you go down the street or something. You walk into that party, and when you come in the door everybody yells your name. They all know you, you know all of them, you recognize all the faces, you feel immediately like this is a place where you belong, this is your place. You might be invested in it immediately, it's a place where you want to hang out, spend some time, you're not intimidated, you feel really comfortable.
I start with that comparison of disparate types of parties every fall in my non-majors botany class at Bucknell, and they don't mind imagining parties, especially the good kind. What I tell those students is that the sad truth is that many of us are walking through the natural world as if we're at the first kind of party. It's a place where we don't know a lot of the other guests, we don't feel that comfortable there. It feels sort of scary, and unknown, maybe even unknowable, threatening in some way. What I ask them to do is stick with me, and as they take this course and maybe another course with me later they begin to feel a little more comfortable in that natural world, they begin to feel a little bit more like they're at a party where they know more of the guests.
We haven't touched on the environmental stewardship category yet. Is there an individual who stands out in your mind?
Again, there are a number, but one that does bring to mind is Lisa Anderson who won the award in 2016. At the time, Lisa was with MIT, and her passion was around educating scientist students, particularly around ways to make the laboratory greener, reduce its environmental impact. I was surprised by this statistic, but she had uncovered that 22% of lab wastes stem from laboratory gloves. I think people put them on, do an experiment, take them off, and then replace them with a fresh pair. She looked specifically at different ways she could actually reduce the impact of the laboratory gloves, and she actually diverted, believe it or not, 600 pounds of gloves from landfills in as little as 4 months. The way she did that was to actually up cycle them to make, of all things, park benches from these gloves.
(Lisa Anderson) Every day when I walk into the lab I think about how do I balance the research that I'm doing where I'm trying to engineer microbes to make biofuels and chemicals to replace petroleum products to make the world a more sustainable place with being able to do this sustainably, and reduce the impact? At UC Davis where I was doing my PhD, studying algae biofuels, I became involved with a program at UC Davis which is one of the leaders, I would say, in this front, and where there's a certification program for individuals and labs in the community, the campus community as a whole to assess the impact of a laboratory environment.
This includes things like energies such as the heating and cooling systems, ultra-low temperature freezers which is common in biological laboratories, which can use the amount of energy as a single household each day. We can also think about waste reduction, so recycling, which is where I focus some of my efforts, which I will get into. We can think about the transportation and the traveling to conferences, and how many of you could have conference calls, or web conferences as an alternative. Water, which is a very important issue in California and also Massachusetts this summer. Electronics and other things like green chemistry and fieldwork.
How about the science and art category? I've definitely seen a lot of science and art and bio-art inspired projects through social media and the news lately. Could you tell us, which individuals stand out in your mind in the science and art category?
Again, there's a number, but the one I'd reference is actually Scott Chimileski who you actually interviewed very recently for an NEB podcast. Scott came across, again, as very passionate, and I think his story of seeing art in microbes and microbial growth was just a fascinating story. It's combined to, now, become almost his career of telling the story of how microbes are actually good, and good not just in a healthy way, but good as an art subject as well.
(Scott Chimileski) We can find the same beauty in the microbial world all around us. On our own bodies, right here in the New England woods, and in our backyards. One of the reasons for this beauty is just the biodiversity of the microbial world. Almost all of the biodiversity on earth is microbes.
Andy, the awards were presented in 2014 as well as 2016, do we have any plans in the works to hold a third Passion in Science Awards?
We, certainly, do. 2019 will actually represent the third Passion in Science Awards. We've been receiving applicants for a few weeks now, but there's still time for anybody who might want to apply for themselves or possibly even apply for a colleague that they believe is worthy. Anybody listening to this podcast who would like to actually apply you can find details at nebpassioninscience.com.
Thanks very much.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of our podcast, and that you're inspired to apply yourself, or to nominate a scientist that you know. As Andy mentioned, you can find more details about the awards, the application process, and all the previous award winners at nebpassioninscience.com. Of course, you can check out the transcript of this podcast for that and lots of other helpful links. Be sure to tune in next time when we'll be focusing on practicing sustainable science because there's no better time than now to be environmentally conscientious about lab practices and lab waste.
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