Collaboration Brings Researchers to a New Level of Discovery

2018 Steenbock Symposium program graphic. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Biochemistry Media Lab

I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could  <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.

As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?

My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:

In today’s competitive research environment, have we missed out on crucial discoveries and technological advances because they weren’t given the right environment in which to develop? Continue reading

#scientistswhoselfie: building a community of trust in the digital age

Danette Daniels, Senior Research Scientist

Earlier this year, an opinion piece published in Science criticized scientists who use Instagram as a tool for science outreach.1 The author argued that “time spent on Instagram is time away from research” and specifically called out female scientists for snapping selfies instead of proposing policy changes to battle the systemic issues of marginalization in STEM fields.

The piece received a significant amount of backlash from social media-savvy scientists. The community commonly referred to as “Science Twitter” is active in using the social media platform as a novel way to humanize science and engage with science-curious followers. Likewise, Instagram provides snapshots into the diverse lives of scientists who feel free to offer their own personal perspectives rather than acting as a representative of their institutions. These growing communities also challenge the stereotypical image of scientists as white men wearing lab coats. Furthermore, the digital presence of scientists and science communicators continues to be fueled by trending hashtags like #actuallivingscientist, #stillascientist, and #scientistswhoselfie.

Continue reading

At Promega, Corporate Responsibility Comes Down to Relationship

We recently connected with a customer who has been using Promega products loyally for years, but who had no idea what the company was like beyond that. She humorously commented, “Oh, there are people at Promega?” Now while we are of course pleased that the quality and capability of our products stand alone, we also place tremendous value on authentic relationships and sustained engagement in the company’s exchanges with customers, as well as employees, suppliers, the communities in which we work and the environment. We wondered how many others were out there with whom we would like to connect and say, “Hello! Curious to get to know us better?”

As a Promega Connections reader, we suspect you already know a bit about who we are, but for those who are especially inquisitive (as most scientists are) we also invite you to check out our newly launched Corporate Responsibility website. Click around and you will soon discover themes of innovative collaboration with scientists, meaningful interconnectedness with employees and communities, and long-term commitment to sustainable growth. The website contains highlights of our 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report, which you can read in its entirety here.

It really comes down to relationship, as Promega founder and CEO Bill Linton writes in his letter for the 2018 Corporate Responsibility Report: “More than any product, technology, or market in guiding our path, we continue to look toward relationship as our North Star to a fulfilling future.” (Read Bill’s full letter here.)

Promoting meaningful connection happens in many ways at Promega. Here are just a few examples: Continue reading

Shaping the Future by Investing in Science

“Today is certainly a great day for Promega R&D, but it is also a great day for science.”

Picture of people gathered

Community members and Promega employees gather for the ground breaking celebration for a new R&D facility.

Gary Tarpley, director of Research and Development at Promega closed his remarks for the ground breaking of the new Promega Research and Development Center in Fitchburg, WI, with those words.

With the ground breaking on this new R&D facility, Promega makes a $190 million, long-term investment in science.

But why invest in science?
Continue reading

Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

A Promega scientist works with a girl scout.

Local girls scouts worked with scientists at Promega to learn how a cell culture facility operates.

My twin daughters are finishing up their 10th-grade year next month, finding themselves smack in the middle of their high school experience, and discussions of classes, colleges and careers are increasing in frequency in my household. (It’s cliché, but I have to say it… Where does the time go?) As the girls begin to ponder their future, my husband and I are encouraging them to gain real-life insight from adults who work in fields they’re curious about. It’s never too early to get a first-hand perspective.

One of my girls has known from a pretty young age that she wants to pursue something in STEM, and likely the “S” in the acronym. Her schedule happened to be open the night a few months ago that one of my Promega colleagues, Senior R&D Scientist Danette Daniels, was speaking on a panel sponsored by the University of Wisconsin – Madison chapter of Graduate Women in Science. My daughter wasn’t sure about how she’d be received as the only high school student in the room, but she agreed to go with me anyway. Besides, I told her, they’re serving pie.

The six women on the panel represented a huge variety of avenues (academic to industry), specialties (biophysics to geology) and professional styles. During introductions, one panelist declared, “I had a job in a lab and was depressed. When I was stuck in a library all day, I was totally excited.” She now works with an organization to recruit more women into STEM fields. The woman sitting beside her runs a research lab and declared, “I love the bench quite a bit, and I don’t want to be in an office reading!” Continue reading

National Optimism Month—Make it a Year

People working togetherToday’s Promega Connections blog is written by guest blogger Tori Sheldon, North America Marketing and Events Coordinator.

It is crazy to think how quickly the months fly by. It feels like yesterday I was watching the ball drop as 2017 turned to 2018. Now it is almost March, when Wisconsin starts to emerge from the cold winter. March also happens to be National Optimism Month.

As I think about optimism, I am reminded of one of the core values that guide interpersonal relationships at Promega: “look for the good, with discernment”.  The spirit of this value is to remember that deep down everyone is trying to come from a positive place and that even though we may not always agree with each other it is an opportunity for further discussion and collaboration.

This value is a part of the Emotional & Social Intelligence (ESI) program at Promega. Continue reading

Adventure in Belize

Today’s blog post is written by guest blogger, Josh Agate, Manager, Global CRM.

Picture from airplane approaching Ambergis Caye

Approaching Ambergis Caye.

Adventure is relative. Most people are looking for new adventures in life, and those can range from planning where to go on vacation to starting a new job. What each person looks for in an adventure and the level of thrill they seek is different. When I learned that Promega had awarded me a trip to a destination of my choice with my family for my job performance, I was excited to plan this new adventure with my wife and two daughters (ages 4 and 6). We decided on a trip to Belize.

The trip required two commercial flights, followed by a puddle jumper flight (with hand-written boarding passes), and a 30 minute boat ride before we arrived at our hotel on the island of Ambergris Caye.  This island, off the northern coast of Belize, would provide the backdrop for our family’s greatest adventure to date. The trip to get to the island wasn’t tedious travel for them; it was a wild ride that included a plane that held 12 people, flying over crystal clear waters and a boat trip, where our hair flew wildly as we were sprayed with ocean mist. Continue reading

Evaluating the Costs of Endotoxin Testing

http://www.eniscuola.net/en/mediateca/king-crab/

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating symposium held at Promega featuring conservationist Steward Brand, where he described some of the projects developed by his foundation, Revive & Restore.

The organization’s mission is to apply emerging biotechnology techniques to endangered and extinct species with the intent to increase genetic diversity, provide disease resistance and facilitate adaptation to changing climates. Although the overall message of enhancing biodiversity through the application of new genetic technology was inspiring, the project that resonated most for me was related to the plight of horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs, often referred to as living fossils, include four extant species with origins dating back about 450 million years. Although they look like crabs, they belong to their own subphylum and are more closely related to spiders. When horseshoe crabs spawn, they leave their usual habitat on the ocean floor and migrate to shore in large numbers. As a result, they have been exploited for bait and fertilizer for decades.

Enter endotoxins, an indicator for bacterial contamination in biologicals, drugs and medical devices. U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulations dictate that finished products be tested for the presence of endotoxins. These pyrogenic compounds, found in the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria, can cause fever and affect a wide range of biological activity, possibly leading to aseptic shock and death. The most common method for testing is the gel clot and Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) Test.

I first learned about the LAL test during graduate school, where it was presented as a ubiquitous and standard requirement for testing bacterial contamination in injectable drugs. I remember being fascinated that horseshoe crabs (Limulus sp.), contain a substance that could be used to detect endotoxins. Although the instructors mentioned the need to collect blood from horseshoe crabs in order to produce the test, the method or scale of this harvest wasn’t discussed, nor were the true costs of using this method of endotoxin testing.

The LAL test has served as a faster, more inexpensive replacement for the rabbit pyrogens test for the past 35 years. Every year during mating season horseshoe crabs move to shallow water, where they are removed in huge numbers. (To get an idea of scale for the harvest and read a much more comprehensive investigation of the issue, check out this article in The Atlantic, which features an archive photo of Delaware Bay horseshoe crab harvest from 1928—for fertilizer, not pharmaceutical testing.)

After collection, the crabs end up in a lab where up to 30% of their blood is drained from a needle stuck in tissue around their heart. The LAL is extracted from the blood and can yield a product worth up to $15,000/quart. In order to avoid recollection, the crabs are returned to the ocean far from the shore where they were collected a few days before. Although it’s estimated that only 10-30% of these crabs die as a result of the process, there are indications that the horseshoe crab population and their ecosystems are impacted in other ways.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University used accelerometers attached to recently bled female horseshoe crabs to test the hypothesis that harvesting for LAL was affecting their ability to spawn. While the research supported previous estimates with a death rate of 18%, females were found to be less likely to mate after being bled.

During his talk, Brand shared results from a study still in review that confirm the effect of over-harvesting Limulus on the survival of long distance migratory shorebirds. These birds synchronize their migration with horseshoe crab spawning, which provides a needed feast of eggs before the homestretch of their journey. Along with other ecosystem threats from climate change, the accelerated decline in the horseshoe crab population and dependency of migratory birds will likely to lead to a devastating ecological domino effect.

Fortunately, a synthetic alternative to LAL, recombinant factor C (rFC), has been available for nearly 20 years. Alas, there has been no significant shift by pharmaceutical companies away from the test based on horseshoe crab blood. rFC was patented and licensed to one company, Lonza, which Brand posited as one reason for the reluctance of drug companies to adopt its use.

Obviously, relying on one source for an essential testing reagent with no competition to temper cost is quite unattractive. But that argument has less bearing now that the patent is scheduled to expire in a few months, opening the door for additional manufacturers and creating an economic incentive for switching to the synthetic test.

Another reason may be that implementing a new test would require additional resources to validate the synthetic test for products that are already being tested with the LAL. Since the LAL has been specified in FDA guidance documents on endotoxin testing for decades, quality standards for existing products are based on the LAL, limiting momentum to change.

If both tests offered the same benefits, these arguments would make sense; however, research by one of the discoverers of rFC, Jeak Ling Ding of the National University of Singapore, shows that in many respects rFC is more efficacious than LAL. Since the raw material for the LAL test depends on an organism, there is seasonal variation in the components of the processed blood that must be taken into account. The reaction of the LAL also depends on a cascade of multiple compounds that can be affected by temperature, pH and proteins—leaving the test vulnerable to false positive results.

Although Eli Lilly is the only pharmaceutical company to date to use rFC in place of LAL, It seems the tide may be turning. According to Brand, others are interested in making the transition. It seems foolish not to, given the source for LAL shows signs of dwindling due to overexploitation. Perhaps pharmaceutical companies are beginning to see the value of a “slower/better” philosophy (the cornerstone of the Long Now Foundation, another brainchild of Brand’s), rather than “faster/cheaper.” I have certainly gained a new perspective on endotoxin testing and a deep appreciation for the work of Brand and his foundation.

Does your organization use the LAL test? What is preventing you from switching to the synthetic alternative? Let us know!

Biotechnology From the Mouths of Babes

As a science writer, much of my day entails reviewing and revising marketing materials and technical literature about complex life science research products. I take for granted the understanding that I, my colleagues and our customers have of how these technologies work. This fact really struck me as I read an article about research to improve provider-patient communication in healthcare settings.

The researchers completed an analysis revealing that patient information materials had an average readability at a high school level, while the average patient reads at a fourth-grade level. These findings inspired the researchers to conduct a study in which they enlisted the help of elementary students to revise the content of the patient literature after giving them a short lesson on the material.

The resulting content did not provide more effective ways to communicate indications, pre- and post-op care, risks or procedures—that wasn’t really the point. Instead, the study underscores the important connection between patient literacy and health outcomes. More specifically, a lack of health literacy is correlated with poor outcomes and increased healthcare costs, prompting action from the US Department of Health & Human Services.

While healthcare information can be complex and full of specific medical terminology, I recognized that a lot of the technical and marketing information we create for our products at Promega has similar features. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out how descriptions of some of our biggest technologies translate through the eyes and mouths of children?

After enlisting some help from my colleagues, I was able to catch a glimpse of how our complex technologies are understood by the little people in our lives. The parents and I explained a technology and then had our child provide a description or drawing of what they understood. Continue reading