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Dr. James Landers is a Jefferson Scholars Fellow and Commonwealth Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Associate Professor of Pathology at the University of Virginia. He is also Director of the Center for Nano-Biosystems Integration. He received his B.S. and Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Guelph in Canada. Afterwards, James conducted postdoctoral research at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the University of Toronto School of Medicine, and the Mayo Clinic. He served on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at the University of Virginia where he is today. James has been awarded the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Scholars Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he has been named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He has joined us today to talk about his experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:22)
To keep in shape, James likes to play hockey. He was born and raised in Canada, so this has been a favorite activity throughout his life. James is also a fan of woodworking, and he has done various small projects, including building shelves for his tool shed.
The Scientific Side (3:26)
In the lab, James tries to shrink chemical and biochemical processes to small plastic devices that allow tests to be automated. These are known as lab-on-a-chip devices. James’s research combines elements of engineering, chemistry, biology, and physiology. Some of their projects focus on measuring things in blood that have clinical relevance or identifying sequences in DNA that may predispose someone to a particular disease. Other projects identify or measure hazardous chemicals and explosives.
A Dose of Motivation (7:18)
“Keep it simple, stupid.” This motivates James to keep the devices he creates simple and accessible so they can successfully be implemented in different applications in everyday life.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (12:12)
Originally, James wanted to be a medical doctor. As a kid, he looked up to his own doctors and grew enamored with the idea of becoming a doctor himself. However, as he progressed through his training, James began to have doubts about whether medical school was the best path for him. A major turning point occurred when he took an upper level biochemistry course in college. James was enthralled by the questions the professor posed that were rooted in trying to understand biology at the molecular level. After this course, he decided to try his hand at research. James really enjoyed working in the lab and the line of research he was working on, so pursuing a PhD was a natural next step.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (27:09)
James spent a few years working on how to incorporate enzyme-based amplification of DNA sequences (known as polymerase chain reaction or PCR) into lab-on-a-chip devices. This process requires the samples at different stages to be heated and cooled. Initially, they were trying to heat the samples by warming a silicon heater that would heat the glass chamber that would heat the sample. This process took too long for the device to be practical. James struggled with this issue for years and was getting really frustrated. A student suggested they take a different approach and helped make a prototype where the liquid was directly heated using infrared light. This decreased the heating time from minutes to seconds, and it was a major breakthrough in the project.
A Shining Success! (31:58)
Currently, James and his lab members are working on creating a portable device the size of a shoebox that can do genetic profiling. The lab-on-a-chip device they created is about the size of a CD, and all of the chemistry is done by adding the sample and spinning the disk. It uses centrifugal force which simplifies the device so no pumps or other components are needed to move the fluids. There are a wide variety of applications of this device from forensics to medicine. For example, one of these devices could be used to identify human remains on-site after mass disasters. The devices could be taken home by an organ transplant recipient to track gene expression that may indicate organ rejection before there are noticeable symptoms. The portability, reduced cost, and speed at which these devices can process samples are huge advances for this type of technology.
Book Recommendations (39:11)
The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh
Most Treasured Travel (42:13)
James went to a Nobel Symposium on Microfluidics in Stockholm this year. This conference brought together 30 of the highest impact people in the field of microfluidics along with about 30 other conference attendees. Five of these conference guests were members of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was mind-blowing to be in the same room and presenting on the same stage as all of these distinguished scientists in his field. James was honored to be invited to the meeting and had a wonderful time visiting Stockholm. He shares some of the fantastic sites to see in the city, including The Vasa which is a museum built to showcase a formerly sunken historical ship, and the City Hall where part of the Nobel Prize Ceremony occurs.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (46:56)
At the University of Virginia, they built a small clean room in James’s lab. When students go in, they have to go through an air shower and then put on full-body white suits with booties, head gear, masks, and goggles. This keeps dust, cells, fabric, and other materials from getting into the lab-on-a-chip devices they are making. The processes they work on take a while, and a lot of the time is spent waiting around for parts of the process to finish. There are large windows in the clean room so people can see in and they can see out. A while back, students started doodling on the glass while they were waiting in there, and there have been some exceptional (and hilarious) artistic creations.
Advice For Us All (53:46)
Recognize opportunities, even when they pop up at inopportune times. If you get an exciting opportunity, but you feel like you aren’t qualified, don’t turn it down for just that reason. It might be a way to really jump-start your career. Also don’t turn down opportunities if they fall outside your wheelhouse. Sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone to pursue these opportunities, and you never know what wonderful new paths these opportunities may lead you down.
In 1993, James launched and directed the Clinical Capillary Electrophoresis Facility in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo-Rochester, developing clinical assays using capillary electrophoretic technology. He joined the Division of Analytical Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh in 1997, and began the development of analytical microfluidic systems for next generation molecular diagnostics; this continued at the University in the Virginia in the early 2000’s. These efforts culminated in a 2006 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report on one of the first sample-to-answer microdevices for genetic analysis. These early developments were incorporated into Rapid DNA Analysis microfluidic system developed by MicroLab Diagnostics, a start-up biotech company. These microfluidic tools have been extended to a new DNA analysis platform that exploits centrifugal force to control fluid flow, chemical reactions and analytical processes – development of the faSTR DNA System is currently ongoing. The Landers Lab group has published more than 240 papers in peer-reviewed journals, 25 book chapters, and edited three editions of the Handbook of Capillary Electrophoresis, and his efforts in microfluidics led to the 2008 Association for Lab Automation ‘Innovative Technology of the Year’ Award. James is currently the Microfluidics Editor for Analytica Chimica Acta, a Visiting Professor at the Kaohsiung Medical University (Taiwan), and the Director of the Center for Nano-Biosystems Integration at the University of Virginia.