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Can you explain your work?

Pennathur’s research involves understanding the behavior of fluids at the nanoscale and uses phenomena present at this scale to develop new biosensors, diagnostic devices and energy conversion devices that laboratories and companies can use to push the envelope of novel systems. “The way that I do this is through nanofluidics, because most biology and chemistry is fluid,” she explains. “I can push these liquids through nanometer-scale channels so that we’re working with small amounts of molecules. The next step is to exploit the nanoscale physics and chemistry to build devices that actually manipulate the individual molecules so that we can know size, charge and shape – or whatever you want to know about the molecule.”

She has four or five projects on the bench right now. “In one, we take peptides and try to figure out their size, shape and conformation using nanofluidic capillary electrophoresis. In another, we use antibody-laden gold nanorods to identify sepsis (a bacterial disease that kills one out of six children worldwide) on a microfluidic chip that can identify the spectroscopic absorption properties of the nanorods and thus the disease,” she explains.

Her team of mechanical engineers uses this information to build useful micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and nano-electro-mechanical systems (NEMS) devices that one day will have a big impact on communities around the world. “We want to make certain that the technology works, then we shrink it down so that it is more useable in the field and can be used by anyone, not just trained medical personnel, to quickly and simply diagnose disease,” she continues. She sees the devices being used in remote areas, operated using pictures for instructions. Then data would be wirelessly transmitted to doctors in more developed areas who would do the diagnosis. The June 2014 special issue of JALA on New Developments in Global Health Technologies is filled with examples very much like this.

One such research project recently spun out into a company that is so new, the ink from her signature on the papers is still drying. The company name, Alveo Technologies, comes from the Latin root “alveus” meaning channel, symbolic of the nanochannels involved in the research behind the prototype. The company will focus on commercializing a prototype device developed in Pennathur’s lab that targets common viruses that can be fought with new anti-viral medications coming into the market.

“We will be building handheld devices, which is exactly what I have always wanted to do,” she says. “We want to get it into the hands of people at this point.” Juggling the launch along with her professorial role should be a snap. “It’s technology developed in my lab, so I will be in an advisory role with the company from this point. I’m not out there to make a billion dollars. I want to see my technology actually working in the world. That to me is success, not money. I want to help communities.”

Can you describe your background?

The desire to help and to educate runs deep with Pennathur. An early ambition was to be a professor. Understanding this about herself helped Pennathur achieve early success. “There are more steps that you can take toward your goal when you know what that goal is,” she says. “It made undergraduate choices easier to make. The sooner you know you want to do something, the sooner you will achieve it. You can begin priming yourself.”

Even before she wanted to be a professor, however, Pennathur simply wanted to know how everything worked. “It’s funny, I never wanted to be an engineer because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty,” she says, with a laugh. “I was always so curious about everything. My dad was an industrial engineer and could always put things together and explain them. I was always very excited about science.”

Her father worked at Polaroid, and when Pennathur was in high school she was allowed to tour the facilities. “He would ask me to do some projects that involved objects I was curious about. He had me build a little jig that could measure the size of the pods that held the chemicals. Little things like this kept me excited. That’s what made me like research. You could think about experiments that you would like to run to learn more information about a system. That’s research, and that’s what sparked my interest,” she explains. “The more you get to know, the more information you have to launch the next experiment,” she continues.

What did you study?

As an undergrad at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the aerospace and aeronautical engineering department, Pennathur worked on a microengine project funded by the U.S. Army that focused on making gas turbine engines the size of a dime. “I found myself liking microfluidics and learned a lot about MEMS technology. So for my Ph.D. at Stanford University, I got involved in nanofluidic transport,” she says. The link between nanofluidics and aero- and astronautics is natural to Pennathur. “A lot of aero-, astro-professionals end up doing microfluidics because the engineering concepts are similar and micro-nano is a hotter field. People are migrating over,” she continues.

n 2007, Pennathur started teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara) College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I love teaching and research. I am lucky to have the best job ever. It’s such a fun place. I feel like I just started here yesterday!” she comments. “I interviewed at seven schools, but I came here because UC Santa Barbara is so collaborative. Not only do I have the job I have always wanted to have in terms of teaching and research, but I also have faculty support and a non-competitive environment.”