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David Eddington: Coming Full Circle with SLAS

SLAS2014 will bring David Eddington, Ph.D., back to where he started. He first came to the event through the SLAS Tony B. Travel Awards Program as a young assistant professor. From podium presentations through organizing panels and tracks, he now sits at the top of the organizational chart for the event, a vantage point he greatly enjoys for its opportunity to influence programming.


"Ever since that first meeting I attended, I have sent students almost every year to the SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition," says Eddington, who is the Scientific Program Planning Committee Conference Co-Chair of SLAS2014, to be held Jan. 18-22, 2014 in San Diego, CA.

"As I have participated in SLAS, I have become more involved in the meeting planning. I have found that the higher up you go in meeting organization with SLAS the fewer tasks there are to do," he says with a chuckle. "It's more a matter of overseeing others who are doing the heavy lifting." Eddington shares the task with fellow Co-Chair Michele Cleary, Ph.D., of Merck Research Laboratories in New Jersey.

"Our goal in planning this year's event was to expand what we had to offer to the community and bring some new folks through the conference who haven't attended before," Eddington explains. "The track chairs have invited a lot of interesting session chairs, and the topics have broadened and expanded as the planning unfolds."

Organizing this SLAS conference is important to Eddington. "We hope to provide a nice environment in which people can connect," he says, adding that his personal focus on microfluidics draws a close-knit group that greatly benefits from their exposure to SLAS conferences. "You get to know people who work with microfluidics a bit better; it's more intimate," he observes. Thanks to the expanding conference content and the generous support offered through the SLAS Tony B. Travel Award Program, Eddington feels that the event is definitely on the radar of more professionals in the microfluidics area.

"It's good to be around other folks and to hear about their work," he says. "I know that my ideas about research develop further after learning what others are doing. You can think about your own problems from a different perspective and return to the lab with new inspiration."

Natural Curiosity

Inspiration and the creative process are important in Eddington's role as an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and as principal investigator of the Biological Microsystems Laboratory. As he manages research and mentors inquisitive and enthusiastic students, he sees a bit of his past.

"I guess I was always curious about how things worked. I always wondered why certain things happened a particular way. With science you can dive into those questions and unravel those mysteries," says Eddington. "I always did sciency projects, but it was not until I got into a real research lab as an undergrad that I began to see what the process was about, how interesting it was and what role I might have in research. That's when I found myself moving into science."

After completing his bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), he continued his education with an M.S. and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). Throughout the course of his graduate work, Eddington learned how to fabricate microfluidic devices and discovered the ins and outs of the technology.

During his post-doctoral years, Eddington served as a postdoctoral fellow of the National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NIH-NRSA). In this role, the native Chicagoan spent time on both coasts at the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) Department of Bioengineering and at the Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Division of Health Sciences and Technology due to his PI relocating to MIT. "I learned a bit of the background of microfluidic devices and applied the techniques I acquired as a graduate student to the work I did during my postdoctoral position. Now, in my research lab, I use what I learned during training to solve new problems. I am still making microfluidic devices and applying them to develop unique experiments."

These lab-on-a-chip devices help Eddington's team study how cells and tissues respond and react to different oxygen conditions. "We're developing devices that can expose a large monolayer of cells to different oxygen tensions. We study how those react and respond when the same culture of cells are exposed to gradients of oxygen, which you could not do with standard, off-the-shelf lab material. Then, we analyze the outcome with standard biochemical assays," Eddington explains, noting that these new experiments mimic the physiology. By making these models, Eddington's team is better able to recreate what happens in the body and study it.

"We're interested in how oxygen plays a role. It's known that oxygen is an important metabolic regulator, and it's implicated in many different biological pathways, so we're trying to unravel specifically what is happening by making better models," he continues. Eddington notes that the challenge lies in his creating a device that is useful to biomedical researchers and at the same time pleases those who supply grant funding for the projects.

"When we are trying to get this research funded, a lot of the time the work gets critiqued because it's too simple, and they feel we aren't doing anything fundamentally new," he explains. "What we have to show is that the new aspect of the work lies on the end application and the fact that it will actually work in a robust manner. It's tricky to find a balance between making useful devices that can actually lead to new insights in biology while satisfying the folks who want to see us push the technology further. We're more interested in applying the technology than pushing it."

Spreading the Word about Science

Keeping that curiosity and zeal for research in the face of challenges is fundamental. "Always having enthusiasm for what you do goes a long way toward maintaining momentum for projects. If you can stay motivated, you can motivate other people as well," says Eddington. He finds that the SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition offers the proper broad perspective needed to keep science students and professionals engaged and focused on their field.

"The show floor of the meeting is really amazing. That's why I like students to go to this meeting to see all the automation technologies that are out there. I also like to see them take advantage of the career prep workshops that are offered," he says.

Eddington encourages those who have submitted abstracts to spread the word about SLAS2014. "Please tell your friends and colleagues about this meeting! We want to get the word out," he stresses, adding that this grassroots effort adds increased momentum to conference attendance.

Eddington's enthusiasm for engaging people in science is not limited to conference attendance and mentoring graduate-level students. As part of his National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, he established an outreach program for elementary and high school students that he describes as quite rewarding and exciting.

"We started the outreach program by identifying easy-to-work-with groups that seem to have frequent outings: the Girl Scouts and high school science classes," he explains, adding that both groups have their unique appeal. "Elementary-aged students enjoy the experience more, but sometimes lack the focus and get a little too excited. They are just happy messing around in the lab. Some of the high school students really like it as well, but the majority of the students in those groups are already considering science or technology as a major. For them, it is a solidifying instead of a transforming experience. With the younger students you can really spark a new interest which is fun."

Eddington plans to set up more lab outings for the Girl Scouts in the near future and adds that the next time a group comes to visit, his daughter Kendall will be old enough to join the fun. "Up until now, my girls have been too young to participate in our outreach programs at the lab. They do enjoy visiting the lab and looking at things under the microscope," he says. "They also really like drawing on the whiteboards in my office."

On a Roll

Weekends typically find all the Eddingtons outside the lab and on a bike trail. Eddington, his wife, Janice, and daughters, Kendall (8), Cameron (6) and Avery (4), like the freedom of following the many paths that thread through the Chicago area and Northern Illinois.

"This summer, I jumped on a bike path that follows Chicago's I & M canal and camped out in a state park with a friend. Then we rode back the next day," Eddington says. He reports that he feels more focused when he returns to lab work after these excursions. "A few times a year I will take off on a bike tour for a few days. Those are the trips in which you are chugging away at miles, letting your mind wander and thinking about what's going on in the lab from a different perspective," Eddington explains.

His daily bike rides, however, require careful concentration to avoid accidents. Eddington commutes to his office daily using a Brompton folding bike. With its 16-inch wheels and its folded size of 23x21.5x10.6-inches, the cycle is ideal for the door-to-door jaunts that separate his hour-long train ride from the Chicago suburbs to the UIC campus downtown. Once in the office, Eddington folds and stashes the bike for the day. Folding takes 10 to 20 seconds.

"The bike ride is quick: It's seven to ten minutes based on lights on either end, and the whole commute takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half depending on if I catch an express or local train. The train ride is nice for getting some work done or reading a book. The bike ride to and from home and then to and from the office is a mini adventure in extreme weather conditions and a relaxing decompressing time in pleasant conditions," he says. "The only time I do not ride is if it has snowed more than four inches in the past 12 hours. Then I either walk to the commuter train, drive to the office or just work from home if I do not have any pressing obligations downtown."

He recently tested his folding-bike mettle by participating in the Brompton U.S. Championship race in Minneapolis on June 23, 2013. The race is as unusual as the bikes used to compete in it. All participants, both male and female, must wear a suit jacket, collared shirt and neck tie that can be paired with shorts, three-quarter length trousers and/or skirts. Lycra sports attire or anything one would normally wear on a bike ride are not permitted. Eddington, decked out in a blazer and tie, competed against approximately 50 other participants from Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Tucson and Portland in a six-mile road race around a tight circuit on a closed street in Uptown Minneapolis. Awards were given for a best-dressed contest and several heats in which athletes raced the clock to collapse their Brompton bicycles.

"We have friends in Minneapolis, so we planned a visit to coincide with the race. I don't normally race. I just ride my bikes for fun," Eddington comments. He enjoyed the adventure and says he would definitely do it again if the race returns to Minneapolis or somewhere nearby. "I would probably train a bit before as well," he concedes. "This time, I just showed up for the ride and I was not properly conditioned for it."

What he has been properly conditioned for is the planning of SLAS2014. Through those years of conference attendance and serving in volunteer capacities, he has learned the ropes and understands what participants are seeking. In fact, Eddington draws a comparison between cycling and attending conferences: "Cycling in general is about getting away and clearing your head. I can say the same about traveling to meetings. You're not distracted by the business of the day as you are at work with managing the lab, students stopping by and preparing for lectures. You can think about things with a certain amount of focus. Conferences give you that important time to step away from work and see something new."

October 7, 2013