Feature Story

Jennifer Kehlet Barton, Ph.D., is developing
early-detection methods for ovarian cancer in
addition to her work as Director of the BIO5
Institute the University of Arizona.
Photo by Kris Hanning.

Engineering Collaboration

Jennifer Kehlet Barton, Ph.D., Director of the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona, is tremendously focused for someone with a major university administrative position and four professorships. Her main goal is to facilitate collaboration among bioscience investigators and scholars across the UA campus to advance technology and scientific discoveries.

The BIO5 Institute combines the talents and skills of the five main biosciences disciplines at UA: agriculture, bioengineering, biomedicine, pharmacy and basic sciences. The vision of the Institute is to aid in the translation of BIO5’s research discoveries into products, methods and services that optimize human health and well-being, and contribute to the economic development of Arizona.

“The days of the single, crazed, introverted scientist working in the lab surrounded by beakers is over,” notes Dr. Barton. “Individuals got as far as they could. The problems we have today — Alzheimer’s, cancer, malnutrition, obesity — these are extremely complex ones that no single person has the skill set to solve. In my own work, I couldn’t get anywhere without the help of cancer biologists, physicians, statisticians and public advocacy people. BIO5 is a mechanism of bringing those people together to solve these grand challenges.”

Dr. Barton’s scholastic and work background makes her eminently suited for this prestigious and complicated position. Following her high school graduation, Dr. Barton’s father — an engineer who worked on every manned space project — told her, “We’ll pay for four years of public university and you can study anything you want … as long as it’s engineering.” She went on to receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, but had taken a couple of classes in biomedical engineering, which really sparked her interest. She agrees that electrical engineers are critically important, but it wasn’t really her passion. However, biomedical engineering wasn’t available as a major at that time.

Her first job following her graduation from college was at McDonnell Douglas, working on the international space station program, which she states was exciting … and boring. “The idea of working on a project to put people in orbit around the earth and conduct science experiments … that part was exciting. But I was there at the very beginning, and the day-to-day work could be a lot of tedium — writing specifications, grants and proposals. It also was a very political program that constantly was under threat of being cut by Congress. I had some wonderful opportunities. For example, I designed a light for the exterior of the Space Station that was incorporated into the finished product. My former boss sent me a photo of it that I keep in my BIO5 office. I also worked with the astronauts at Johnson Space Center on the mockups, on how best to lay out the electrical and lighting systems for use during their space walks.”

This was during the 1980s when women in engineering were still quite a rarity. Perhaps growing up in a household with four brothers made it easier for her to get along with her male counterparts, but she faced little blowback from the workers on the project. “I think one advantage I had is that engineers want to solve problems and build stuff, so ego and posturing doesn’t get you very far. If you’re not solving problems and building things, then you lose esteem in your peers’ eyes. I thought it interesting that there weren’t more women in engineering at the time. It’s a field that relies on talent and hard work, and is pretty much accepting of anyone who has a decent brain and gets results.”

Although working on the space station had its upside, the stress of project cuts made her feel ready to go back to school. She went back for her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas. By that time she was married and wanted to start a family, so she had big decisions to make as to her career path.

“I thought I was either going into academia in a permanent position or into industry. When I came to Tucson and interviewed for an assistant professor position at the University of Arizona I fell in love with the place.” Dr. Barton and her husband Andrew Barton ended up adopting two girls from China, at a time when the University of Arizona had no adoption or maternity leave, as there is now.
It was difficult for her go from her doctoral studies right into a professorship because she had to “ramp up” very quickly — get grants, as well as learn how to teach and get tenure. She soon discovered she already knew how to write grants from her time at McDonnell Douglas.

The concept of BIO5 started in 2001, when Dr. Barton was still a junior professor, and had only been with UA several years. Because of her fundamental belief in the importance of cross-disciplinarity, she was one of the first groups to move into the Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch Building where BIO5 has its home.

Although her primary faculty appointment is Professor, Biomedical Engineering, she also is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Optical Sciences, and Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering. Why so many? “I felt an attraction to these disciplines and wanted to go to faculty meetings to meet others working in those fields. Also, having an appointment in that department gives you the right to mentor those graduate students. I needed more than just biomedical engineering students in my lab, such as electrical engineering and optical sciences. I have taught engineering and optical science classes and have lectured in several others.

“BIO5 exists as a physical space where faculty, research scientists, technicians and students from across disciplines can meet, and have an administration to support them in publicizing their work, organizing events and conferences, and providing funding to help with the research. We can hire students to collect data on the studies we perform, or to run the samples through the mass spectrometer to get that data. We also try to reach out beyond the campus to get community organizations involved. My main focus is to facilitate the collaborations. You can’t force people to collaborate, but you can make it easy for them.”
Dr. Barton’s research passion right now is early detection of ovarian cancer. “The way I’m approaching it is to use advanced optical imaging techniques. You can get great information from the way light reacts with tissue.  A lot of my career has been spent developing those techniques.

“We’re pretty sure we can detect ovarian cancer early. The challenge has been getting the light source to the tissue. We’ve been building miniature endoscopes that can go through the reproductive tract, to reach the fallopian tubes and the ovaries. That means really miniature, like sub-millimeter. We have a bench-top prototype, so our next step is to do a pilot trial, maybe 20 women, to show we can access the ovaries with this device, and — fingers crossed — we should know sometime this month. The funding would come from the Department of Defense, which has a highly regarded ovarian cancer research program. In the pilot trial, the subjects are women who would be undergoing surgery anyway, and who agreed to allow us to try the procedure.

“I’m also working with collaborators to develop an early detection blood test for ovarian cancer that we hope will be the first line of defense in the disease. It would allow doctors to know which women need to go in for further testing procedures.

“Because I am able to work so closely with cancer biologists, physicians, statisticians and public advocacy groups, we have a terrific chance of changing how this cancer, and others, are detected and treated.”

— Anne Kellogg