Interview with Jennifer Boothby– Sanjana Chemuturi

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Dr. Jennifer Boothy is a Polymer Synthetic Chemist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, who designs new, smart plastics that can help solve prevalent problems. Tracking ocean climates, creating soft robots, and sensing and responding to specific chemicals are just a few of the things she does . Jennifer received her Bachelor’s of Science in Biomedical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology, and her MS/PhD in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Dallas.

- When and how did you first become interested in Bioengineering?

I first heard about Bioengineering at an Engineering camp I attended over the summer when I was in high school. They didn't tell us much about it, but I thought it would be the perfect fit for my strengths and interests at the time , purely based on the name. Even going into college, I don't think I had a good idea of what Biomedical Engineering was, even though I was majoring in it.

- What have you researched in previously, and what are you researching now?

I researched in a number of different labs on campus in undergrad, working on vaccine formulations, data compilation for ALS research, and genetic engineering of bacteria. I co-oped at a medical device company in undergrad where I got experience in a variety of research tasks, including hydrogel coatings, mechanical characterization, machining, CAD design, and FDA clearance procedures. The main task I worked on was culturing bone stem cells on medical implants and measuring viability, differentiation, and mineralization.

In graduate school, most of my research focused on engineering responsive polymers, so programming material to change shape in response to changing conditions. For example, one of the projects I worked on was getting a polymer to change color as it absorbed water. I had a number of side projects, including measuring the stiffness of rat nerves, encapsulating bacteria in hydrogels, and trying to control nerve cell axon projection direction with a programmed surface.

Now, I work on a variety of defense-related projects related to materials research, including degradable hydrogel synthesis, metal corrosion, artificial muscles, and ocean sensors. There's a lot of room for creativity in the projects; I am about to submit a proposal for making ceramic scaffolds to rapidly regrow corals.

- What qualities do you feel are important to succeed in this field?

The biggest quality needed for Biomedical Engineering is similar to what you would need in any engineering field, the fortitude to push through hard classwork. I also think a strong direction is important for Biomedical Engineering (at least by the end of your education), which is different from most engineering fields. Biomedical Engineering has such disparate applications that you need to know what areas to focus your efforts in. For example, just because I am a Biomedical Engineer does not mean I can go build prosthetics or implant electrodes into someone's brain - even though the job description might say "Biomedical Engineer". Building your skill set around your interests is important to succeed after your degree because many companies still don't know what Biomedical Engineers "do". They instead advertise for mechanical engineers or biologists or chemists because they can be sure of their skill sets. I wouldn't let this discourage you, but you should be deliberate about your education if you choose this path.

- What are the major differences between working in the industry and working in research?

There can be "research" in industry as well. Generally, there are three main categories of places where you can do research: industry, government, and academia. The major difference is funding and how applied the research is. In industry, your research centers around selling a product, which feeds money back into your company's research. If there is no marketing advantage, you won't do the research. Industry research is fairly uncommon outside of large corporations and start-ups. There are many National Labs run by the government that do wonderful research. For the most part, there is no competition for funding opportunities, but you work on projects to advance the nation's technology, such as energy solutions, aerospace technologies, and national security. Academia has the most freedom to work on research projects for your own design. It is generally accepted that academic research is "for the sake of science" and not for the profit of any individual. However, in academic research you must compete for government and private grants to fund your research. Your research funds are never guaranteed and may get cut. You could lose the ability to fund your graduate students and certain projects if you fail to pull in enough projects.

- What advice do you have to anyone interested in pursuing the field of Biomedical Engineering?

As I said in the previous response, I think anyone who enters the field of Biomedical Engineering should be prepared to find a direction to pursue. As an interdisciplinary science, there's many paths to choose, and it's easy to come out of college with a degree and not know what to do with it. Distinguishing yourself from your peers by specializing is the best way to succeed. You can do this by minoring in another field, by conducting research in a specific area, or by focusing your electives.

- Was there a person or any significant people that influenced your academic/career journey?

There were many people who influenced my journey along the way. My 8th grade science teacher was the first person to suggest I should explore engineering, and she handed me that flyer for an engineering camp. The first professor to give me a research position in his lab also hugely influenced my path. If he hadn't taken a chance on a student with no experience, I wouldn't have had the opportunities I did. The biggest influencer has definitely been my doctoral advisor. Though we did not see eye to eye for the majority of the time, he shaped my view of what good, impactful research looks like. He also set a whole new definition to the term "hard work". There's no way I would be where I am today without a handful of people taking a chance on an inexperienced student.

- Did being a female in a generally male dominated field impact your academic/career journey?

If anything, it made the challenge of it more appealing. In high school, I had some ridiculous notion that I needed to take the hardest possible path, just to prove I could. During undergrad, I never really felt out of place or marginalized because I was a female at a Tech school. There were certainly times where I lamented the lack of fellow females, though. For my senior design project, I was the only woman in a team of four. The project we bid on (and ultimately got awarded) was a device for cervical cancer detection. We ended up proposing an insertion device to collect cell samples. You'd think that the whole experience would have been awfully awkward, but you'd be surprised at how great they were about it. Though, it was a bit embarrassing to have to explain how feminine hygiene products worked as "similar devices". And to realize how little they knew about them! Regardless, I never thought it was more difficult to be in the field than any male in my class.

I have felt a bit of discrimination in the job search process. I remember interviewing with a team of three men, and I could tell from the time I stepped in the room that they didn't take me seriously. However, this was mostly the exception, not the rule.

As an aside, though engineering is generally male-dominated, biomedical engineering often has an even split of men and women.

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