Nancy Allbritton says she was born an engineer. An early manifestation of that was a young girl and her grandfather taking apart old television sets and, “having a good time looking at the guts of things.”
Another early engineering foray was the design and building of rabbit hutches. Allbritton says her best design solved the problem of rabbits digging in the lawn when they went down the ramp to play in the grass—a must for healthy rabbits. “The whole hutch stood on skids,” she explained. “So you could slide it to different parts of the yard and avoid extensive rabbit damage in one spot.”
Discovering how things work—namely cells and multicellular systems—and using that knowledge to build instruments that enable the next level of discovery, is a theme in Allbritton’s career. She has consistently turned research discoveries into integral research devices, such as array-based cell-sorters, that are used by many research labs. One of her startups, Cell Microsystems, distributes its unique cell sorting platform worldwide.
Accordingly, Allbritton is clear about her proudest moment as a bioengineer. “It’s when I’m visiting a colleague’s lab and the post-docs and grad students are working away with various instruments, and none of them have any idea that I created and commercialized those devices.” She recounts a fun twist on that theme when her nephew sent her a photograph of one of her company’s technologies in the lab he was working in. “He said he was having a hard time convincing his colleagues that his aunt Nancy founded the company.”
Those who have followed her career, however, would not doubt the origin of the technology. Allbritton’s research has been funded by more than $60 million in grants fueling the development of platforms for the study and analysis of single cells aimed at improved treatment of cancer, macular degeneration and HIV. She has co-founded four startup companies and holds 43 pending patents and patents that have led to 15 commercial products.
She notes the funding through several NIBIB grants early in her career, “Those grants supported foundational work identifying protein networks that drive essential cell functions and how the breakdown of those critical pathways contributes to disease development.”
Allbritton recently brought her impressive track record of innovative research, teaching, and leadership to a new position at the University of Washington, Seattle, as the Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of the College of Engineering. Her previous affiliation was in North Carolina where she chaired and expanded the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, which spans the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State.
She has advised more than 42 graduate students and trained over 33 postdoctoral fellows throughout her 10 years in North Carolina and the previous 13 years on the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. Asked about the role of women mentors in her early career development, Allbritton reflects, but answers bluntly. “There weren’t any in the physical sciences—kind of amazing.”
“Back then physics research was still in the era of post-World War II ‘Big Science,’ characterized by large teams of men working on big projects. I could not imagine how a woman could integrate into that environment.” She determined that there was, however, a feasible path forward in the area of biomedical engineering—relatively small science where individual hard work and perseverance could yield results.
That decision led her to a pivotal postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Lubert Stryer, currently the Mrs. George A. Winzer Professor of Cell Biology, Emeritus, at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Among many distinctions, Stryer is famous for his authorship of “Biochemistry,” the standard undergraduate textbook, which has endured for decades.
“Lubert relished mentorship,” explains Allbritton. “I valued his honest feedback, which really drove me to up my game. He challenged me to continuously think more deeply—quizzed me to the point that I was driven to stay ahead of his questions.” She notes that Stryer aimed to train a complete professional, which included honing communication and writing skills, as well as a razor-sharp analytical mind.
So, as a seasoned mentor, what advice does she have for women scientists? “Well, it’s really the same for everybody in some ways. The secret to success is to work harder. There is no magic bullet. Science, much like life, is loaded with failures. When an experiment fails you’ve gotta get up the next day, put on your shoes, and go do the experiment again. When that fails, as is often the case, you have to stay motivated, not get discouraged, and keep at it.”
“A key for me was to not blame other people. No point complaining ‘The grant reviewer didn’t read my grant right!’ If I blame someone else, I disempower myself. How you can get better is what you can control. That empowers me and I can cause change”
What is her recipe for turning discoveries into valuable, commercialized research tools? “Assembling a hard working team. My experience, as well as scientific studies, show that a team—specifically a diverse team—is the most creative, most productive, and outperforms 'the lone genius.’"
She explained that building a successful start-up company requires diverse individuals and diverse expertise spanning scientific and business skills. She recounted shaking a lot of hands while looking for people that she deemed a good fit for a new venture. She was blunt about a key requirement of a business partner, “willing to work for free…at least at first.” Examples include a retired lawyer “looking for fun,” and a business school graduate excited about a new tech startup.
Asked about her vision of the future of women in science, Allbritton cites the success of women in biomedical engineering, but notes the long way to go in some other engineering disciplines. “We have to work at how we can make all fields of engineering welcoming to women and underrepresented groups.” She is concerned about girls socialized to avoid math and science. “We need more women leaders. When you can see someone that looks like you succeed, barriers disappear.”
Her “elevator speech,” on the need for women and underrepresented groups in engineering is concise and to the point. “I tell people, ‘We’re in a global competition. We can’t leave out half the brain power.’”
So, while clearly bullish on promoting women in science, Allbritton looks forward to a reworked future landscape. “The ultimate goal is to just be one of the team, not treated differently, no big focus or initiatives. The ultimate goal is to achieve parity.”