Join MySLAS Social

Sumita Pennathur: Channels of Progress

Working in a channel that is 60,000 times smaller than a human hair, SLAS member Sumita Pennathur, Ph.D., is doing big work on a nano scale. Can she save the world moving one molecule at a time?


She sounds like Wonder Woman and maybe she is. Each week the busy mom teaches class, plays a gig with her band in a nightclub, runs 20 to 30 miles and researches new ways to save the world from disease through early detection and diagnosis.

"People wonder how I do it all," she says. "They think I am crazy because I don't sleep that much!" The answer is not insanity or insomnia; it's a blend of interests that keep life fresh for her. Music keeps her sane, running keeps her fit and research releases her insatiable curiosity. Along with all this, she uses SLAS as a conduit for her latest findings and a resource for new connections.

"SLAS is great," she comments. "The Society brings together companies and research. It's the interface that academics want. There are many people in academia who push the boundaries and build real products to help people. SLAS offers a forum to help us see what people want and what we can do," she says.

"When I was standing in line to register at SLAS2014, I started a conversation with the person in line behind me. The next thing you know, we're having dinner together and talking about possible collaborations that we could do and ways my technology could help her. Things like this happen at SLAS!" Pennathur continues.

She is more involved in the Society than ever before. After serving as a session chair for SLAS2014, Pennathur soon was drafted to serve as the educational track chair for Micro/Nano Technologies at SLAS2015, to be held February 7 - 11, 2015, in Washington, DC. "The first year, I was so excited that I wanted to be part of the planning process and I gradually became more and more involved," she comments, adding that talking with and recruiting speakers was a great experience.

She hopes to shape the 2015 track by bringing in even more innovations. "I have a great co-chair, Dan Huh, Ph.D., who specializes in building organ-on-a-chip devices that emulate organ function using micro and nano technologies. Our hope is to have some new and exciting aspects of micro and nano to show next year," Pennathur says. In the meantime, Huh also is serving as guest editor for an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) on Microengineered Cell- and Tissue-Based Assays for Drug Screening and Toxicology Applications.

Pennathur hopes, too, that the SLAS2015 audience will be populated not only with people who are interested in the academics of the subject matter to develop new systems, but also with end users. "If we can create an exciting program, we can attract some of the exhibitors in to see what technologies micro and nano can offer to diagnostics," Pennathur says.

Shaping the Future

Pennathur's research involves understanding the behavior of fluids at the nanoscale and uses phenomena present at this scale to develop new biosensors, diagnostic devices and energy conversion devices that laboratories and companies can use to push the envelope of novel systems. "The way that I do this is through nanofluidics, because most biology and chemistry is fluid," she explains. "I can push these liquids through nanometer-scale channels so that we're working with small amounts of molecules. The next step is to exploit the nanoscale physics and chemistry to build devices that actually manipulate the individual molecules so that we can know size, charge and shape – or whatever you want to know about the molecule."

She has four or five projects on the bench right now. "In one, we take peptides and try to figure out their size, shape and conformation using nanofluidic capillary electrophoresis. In another, we use antibody-laden gold nanorods to identify sepsis (a bacterial disease that kills one out of six children worldwide) on a microfluidic chip that can identify the spectroscopic absorption properties of the nanorods and thus the disease," she explains.

Her team of mechanical engineers uses this information to build useful micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and nano-electro-mechanical systems (NEMS) devices that one day will have a big impact on communities around the world. "We want to make certain that the technology works, then we shrink it down so that it is more useable in the field and can be used by anyone, not just trained medical personnel, to quickly and simply diagnose disease," she continues. She sees the devices being used in remote areas, operated using pictures for instructions. Then data would be wirelessly transmitted to doctors in more developed areas who would do the diagnosis. The June 2014 special issue of JALA on New Developments in Global Health Technologies is filled with examples very much like this.

One such research project recently spun out into a company that is so new, the ink from her signature on the papers is still drying. The company name, Alveo Technologies, comes from the Latin root "alveus" meaning channel, symbolic of the nanochannels involved in the research behind the prototype. The company will focus on commercializing a prototype device developed in Pennathur's lab that targets common viruses that can be fought with new anti-viral medications coming into the market.

"We will be building handheld devices, which is exactly what I have always wanted to do," she says. "We want to get it into the hands of people at this point." Juggling the launch along with her professorial role should be a snap. "It's technology developed in my lab, so I will be in an advisory role with the company from this point. I'm not out there to make a billion dollars. I want to see my technology actually working in the world. That to me is success, not money. I want to help communities."

Engineering Inevitable

The desire to help and to educate runs deep with Pennathur. An early ambition was to be a professor. Understanding this about herself helped Pennathur achieve early success. "There are more steps that you can take toward your goal when you know what that goal is," she says. "It made undergraduate choices easier to make. The sooner you know you want to do something, the sooner you will achieve it. You can begin priming yourself."

Even before she wanted to be a professor, however, Pennathur simply wanted to know how everything worked. "It's funny, I never wanted to be an engineer because I didn't want to get my hands dirty," she says, with a laugh. "I was always so curious about everything. My dad was an industrial engineer and could always put things together and explain them. I was always very excited about science."

Her father worked at Polaroid, and when Pennathur was in high school she was allowed to tour the facilities. "He would ask me to do some projects that involved objects I was curious about. He had me build a little jig that could measure the size of the pods that held the chemicals. Little things like this kept me excited. That's what made me like research. You could think about experiments that you would like to run to learn more information about a system. That's research, and that's what sparked my interest," she explains. "The more you get to know, the more information you have to launch the next experiment," she continues.

As an undergrad at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the aerospace and aeronautical engineering department, Pennathur worked on a microengine project funded by the U.S. Army that focused on making gas turbine engines the size of a dime. "I found myself liking microfluidics and learned a lot about MEMS technology. So for my Ph.D. at Stanford University, I got involved in nanofluidic transport," she says. The link between nanofluidics and aero- and astronautics is natural to Pennathur. "A lot of aero-, astro-professionals end up doing microfluidics because the engineering concepts are similar and micro-nano is a hotter field. People are migrating over," she continues.

During her own migration, she worked on projects that progressively became more microscopic, and had a first opportunity to teach at University of Twente in The Netherlands. Pennathur also held multiple positions at various companies and schools such as Sandia National Laboratories, Stanford University, U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Tigris Corporation and Lockheed Martin. She also co-authored two textbooks on nanotechnology and won multiple awards including a DARPA Young Faculty award and a Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineers.

2010 PECASE winners. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.In 2007, Pennathur started teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara) College of Engineering's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "I love teaching and research. I am lucky to have the best job ever. It's such a fun place. I feel like I just started here yesterday!" she comments. "I interviewed at seven schools, but I came here because UC Santa Barbara is so collaborative. Not only do I have the job I have always wanted to have in terms of teaching and research, but I also have faculty support and a non-competitive environment."

Blending Kids and a Career

Curiosity runs deep in Pennathur's family, from the early experiments with her father to the research and consulting she does now. Her seven-year-old son shows a similar growing desire to know how things work. "While my daughter is easily entertained, my son needs things to do, so I set up activities for him," says Pennathur, adding that it's much like her own childhood. "My son's a little engineer at heart. When I have to interview students to work in the lab, I warn them they are going to have to deal with my son being there a lot of the time."

She acknowledges that raising a family in the midst of a prolific career has been her biggest hurdle. "Having kids changes everything for you. Up to the point of becoming a mother for the first time, I never noticed differences between males and females in science and engineering. The women before me in my field did what they were supposed to do and made it so that my generation didn't notice many differences. Occasionally I observed that there were more men than women, but I never felt that I was being treated any differently. As soon as I had children, things really changed. Mothers feel a strong need to spend time with their children, maybe as a result of the deep bonding from pregnancy, labor and delivery," says Pennathur. "If I want to be productive and spend time with my children, I have to bring them everywhere with me."

She was one of the first professors in engineering at UC Santa Barbara to have children pre-tenure. "Now, there are plenty of women in academics doing this. People in my position who work hard to be the best and the most successful often have to put their kids on the back burner. I refuse to do that," she comments.

A few Alveo meetings recently took her and her family to San Francisco. "To make that trip to San Francisco, I was looking everywhere for people to watch my kids," Pennathur says. "I have a lot of family and friends there, but funny enough, the people who stepped in to help were my old students. Everyone else was too busy, or they had work. My old students said, 'Oh yeah! We'll take a day off and watch the kids.' I was amazed at how loyal they are! One said, 'You gave me so much for four years, the least I can do is help you out.' They know my son because they have played with him in the lab! What better help can you get than a Stanford Ph.D. babysitter?"

In the midst of motherhood, Pennathur does claim a couple of places as her own, however: the running path and band time. Running 15 to 20 miles each week to keep fit, Pennathur occasionally adds marathon training and races to her schedule.

In addition to this, she is a professional musician, playing saxophone in a band one night a month in local clubs. Her brother, a Ph.D. in biology, is also a professional musician. "I had to decide at a certain point if I wanted to do science or music. I think I made more money as a musician than as a graduate student at Stanford." When she asks her kids if they want to play music, they give a ho-hum response. "I think they are too young for that now," she says. For now the world inside their mother's lab is much more consuming.

Whatever path her children choose is fine with Pennathur. "When my son is playing basketball, I tell him, 'I don't care if you win or lose. I don't want you to goof around on the sidelines. I want your head in the game. Try your hardest. You can't control the outcome, you have to just play your hardest. That's what I would tell others. As long as you define what you want to achieve and work your hardest – that's your game," Pennathur concludes. She says this is how she has structured and lived her own life. "I wake up every day happy because I am able to fully embody my teaching and parenting."

June 23, 2014