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Dr. Joe Baio is an Assistant Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. He received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Washington. Afterwards, Joe was awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct research in the Department of Molecular Spectroscopy at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, in Mainz, Germany. He joined the faculty at Oregon State University in 2013. Joe was the recipient of the Dorothy M. and Earl S. Hoffman Scholarship from the AVS 58th International Symposium, the PhD Student Award for Outstanding Research from the Society for biomaterials, and the STAR Award from the Society for Biomaterials. In our interview, Joe will share more about his life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:24)
To clear his mind and get a break from the stresses of work, Joe enjoys cycling on local trails and going surfing on the nearby Oregon coast with his neighbor.
The Scientific Side (3:23)
In the lab, Joe studies how materials function in the natural world to determine if principles from natural materials can be applied to solve important problems in medicine, biotechnology, engineering, and other fields. In particular, Joe is interested in understanding the characteristics and interactions on the surfaces of materials. Surfaces of interest range from cell membranes to artificial hips to sticky frog tongues.
A Dose of Motivation (7:10)
“80% of success is just showing up.” – Woody Allen
What Got You Hooked on Science? (11:05)
Joe was a curious kid, and he enjoyed taking things apart – though he wasn’t always able to get them back together again! His family members generally had more technical, blue collar jobs, and Joe was the first in his family to go to college. He started as a chemistry major because he had done well in chemistry in high school. However, when Joe heard that engineering might be a more lucrative career path, he changed his major to chemical engineering. During college, Joe had a work study job in the clean room of the microfabrication lab at UC, Berkeley. Working in the lab introduced him to other faculty members and showed him that research could be a viable career, but Joe still didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to do after graduation. He accepted a position working with Dr. Sheila Patek on projects related to bio-inspired design, bioengineering, and biomaterials. The research was a great fit for Joe’s interests, and Sheila really encouraged him to consider graduate school and becoming an academic researcher. This set Joe on the path of becoming an independent investigator.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (24:03)
In science, everything you do is assessed. Your teaching, grants, papers, and other work products all go through peer review. This means that you are going to get a lot of constructive and negative feedback on your work, and it is easy to get burnt out and focused only on the negative feedback. This is a struggle, but successful scientists have to be able to move on. After submitting 10 National Science Foundation grant proposals in a row that were all rejected, Joe decided to spend one summer getting back in the lab to do experiments himself. This was a great experience, and he has tried to block off time to work in the lab every summer since then. During that first summer in the lab, Joe was able to collect preliminary data for one of the projects he had proposed, and the next time he submitted the grant, it was funded.
A Shining Success! (27:53)
The biggest successes for Joe have been seeing the students he works with becoming independent scientists. The first PhD student in Joe’s lab was focusing on a particular project for his dissertation but also launched his own side project. The student came up with the idea for the experiment, collected data, tested a great hypothesis, and then brought the findings to Joe. It was a cool project, the student published a paper on it, and it was great for Joe as a new mentor and PI to see that his student was developing important skills for becoming a successful independent investigator.
Book Recommendations (29:33)
Canada by Richard Ford and Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
Most Treasured Travel ( 31:36)
One of Joe’s favorite places to visit for science is the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Lab (BNL). This is a huge stadium-sized research facility where they spin electrons in a big ring to produce the x-rays Joe’s team uses to study proteins, material structures, and surface structures. Joe’s very first visit to BNL was in graduate school, and now he and members of his lab typically visit the facility once each year. While there, it is fantastic to catch up with colleagues, collect data, and talk about spectroscopy.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (35:56)
When doing experiments, it is not uncommon for unexpected events to occur. Joe will never forget the time one of his students visited a lab in Germany to collect data on the sticky proteins in the mucus on frog tongues. To run the analysis to characterize the mucus, they needed to get the frog to stick its tongue on a glass prism. During the experiment, the student held a fly behind the grass prism to trick the frog into striking the glass with its tongue. Unfortunately, in the very first trial, the student wasn’t holding onto the prism tightly enough, and the frog managed to snatch the prism out of their hand and eat it. Joe woke up that morning to find a strange email in his inbox, and he quickly called the student and his collaborator in Germany. In the end, the frog regurgitated the prism and was fine, the experiment worked, and all was well.
Advice For Us All (41:02)
Remember that even if your research is extraordinary, it won’t have a big impact if you can’t find a way to share it. Successful scientists are always sharing their work through papers, presentations, and conversations with the public. You’ll likely never feel like a project is truly completed, but at some point, you just have to put it out in the world. Also, successful scientists are good at presenting data in creative ways. Being a skilled communicator is key to being successful in science. In addition, your interests may change over time, and it is important to be okay with this. Learn a set of skills that will allow you to explore the fields you are curious about. Finally, try to always surround yourself with interesting people.
Joe’s research interests center around two threads: the characterization of biological interfaces, and the development of biomimetic materials. The Baio lab’s long-term goal is to identify the full spectrum of chemical interactions between biological surfaces and the environment, by developing and applying state of the art surface analytical techniques to characterize biomaterial interfaces. The chemical structure of any material’s surface dictates how it will interact with its environment. For example, when biomedical materials are placed within a patient, that object’s surface properties trigger the body’s reaction. Yet, a central challenge to identifying surface properties arises because of the difficulties applying surface analytical techniques to probe the chemistry of biological surfaces. The Baio group uses techniques that provide the conformation, orientation and structure of small molecules, lipids, proteins and DNA at the air-water interface, on polymer substrates, or within large tissue samples. Joe’s work to date has impacted disciplines as diverse as cell biology, bio-sensor research, and material science.