Heather Clark is a nanoscientist at Draper Laboratories who works on developing special tattoos made of tiny little nanoparticles to measure blood glucose so that people with diabetes can better measure their blood sugar levels. How cool is that?
Tell us a bit about your background.How did you come to your current job?
I went to college and graduate school at the University of Michigan to become a chemist. While in graduate school, I was given a wonderful opportunity to develop a new type of sensor—a nanosensor—for studying what is going on inside a living cell. After working with cells for a few years, though, I decided that I needed to learn more biology to be effective in developing tools for the biological world. I worked as a postdoc at the University of Connecticut Health Center for five years in a lab that was focused more on biology instead of chemistry—and it was a real learning experience! Now that I lead my own research projects, I am very grateful for these two disparate opportunities. Not only do I try to incorporate what I have learned into my research, but I feel like it has made me a more effective collaborator. This opens the door to entire fields of research that would not be possible if I were working by myself in the lab on one thing.
When you were a kid, did you run around doing science experiments?
Not at all! My dream was to be an artist. Science was never even a consideration until I took my first chemistry class as a sophomore in high school. I still remember sitting in class and thinking that there was a whole world of science out there that I just HAD to know more about. For me, science was a natural extension of the artistic side of me—a chance to express my creativity while exploring a new frontier. What are you working on right now? I develop nanosensors for use in biological measurements. We are as interested in making a new sensor as we are in trying it out to solve a biological problem. One of the things we are working on is studying how sodium flows into a cell during the beat of the heart—and how blocking it can lead to heart failure.
We heard about your work on tattoos and measuring blood glucose. What is that all about?
Tattoos are actually little nano- and microscale particles that are inserted into the skin with a tattoo needle. Since we make nanoparticles that measure things, it seemed like a natural extension of our work to put them into the skin like a tattoo to measure glucose. That way, people with diabetes would have a more convenient way to monitor their blood sugar levels. There is one major difference, though. These are NOT permanent tattoos, since the plan is to inject them into a layer of skin nearer the surface than regular tattoos are injected. This layer, the epidermis,sloughs off after about a week. The other advantage is that it should hurt a lot less than a tattoo, since it is not injected as deeply.
Do you have a tattoo?
No way! My friends tell me that regular tattoos hurt.
If you weren’t a scientist what do you imagine you might be doing?
Hard to even imagine, since I have wanted to be a scientist for such a longtime. Every now and then I wonder if it is too late for me to join the LPGA. Judging by my golf score, I should stick to science.