Please tell us about yourself
Sometimes, things just seem to fall into place. When looking at the smooth career progression of someone like Kamlesh (Ken) Patel, however, you realize that there is an awful lot going on behind the scenes to make success appear seamless.Patel grew up in the St. Louis, MO, area and headed to nearby Truman State University (Kirksville, MO) to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the nationally ranked liberal arts college. He talks about a typical college experience…a broad field of study with a few areas that truly resonated with him.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
“It was my professors in analytical chemistry at Truman State that really turned me on to instrumentational sciences and analytical chemistry,” Patel credits. “Then I went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for graduate school work and got a PhD in analytical chemistry under Jim Jorgenson.”
“Key professors were a real influence in my life, and now I am kind of leading the charge in a lot of the analytical and development work here in my area at Sandia Labs,” he adds.
While he indicated that Truman State is not a research college, professors had a very keen eye on using research as a way to teach.
“Truman offered me freedom to express myself; professors encouraged that,” Patel offers. “The thing I took away from graduate school is how to do research properly. That was important to setting up my career, but it was undergrad that sparked my interest and showed me how to harness my inquisitive nature. Obviously you make mistakes but how you learn from those mistakes can make you become very efficient as a scientist.”
Can you tell us about your work?
Patel joined Sandia National Laboratories as a staff scientist in October 2001, following completion of his graduate degree at Chapel Hill. Joining at a tumultuous time in the United States truly endeared Patel to Sandia’s mission: “Securing a peaceful and free world through technology.”
“Sandia is a national lab – one of a limited number of Department of Energy facilities in the United States,” Patel shares. “I was hired at the time of the September 11 attacks and subsequent Amerithrax letters so there was real heavy importance to equipping our first responders and our nation with tools to help detect potential attacks whether they be from terrorism or bio agents’ release at high value targets.”
With an emphasis on finding tools to improve response time and increase protection – whether it is to protect a facility or to keep personnel safe – Patel jumped right in.
“My work focused on developing miniaturized automated systems that are handheld – to put all the components of processing that happen in a laboratory on a device – and automate it so that you can actually do the analysis in the field,” he notes. “Then, depending upon your results, you can immediately perform an action.”
One example of a key project in the Sandia biosciences program had been working on in the 2000-2005 timeframe was MicroChemLab. The groundbreaking concept at the time was designed to detect and rapidly characterize protein signatures from different agents using a handheld unit. This device could help responders distinguish, for example, “white powders” such as baby formula from something more lethal such as anthrax spores. Since that time, Sandia continued to be at the forefront to develop advance technologies around miniaturized high-performance devices like these.
“At Sandia, we take high-risk ideas and bring them to fruition,” he says. “Not only to show that it works once, but to show that it works again and again to appropriate levels of sensitivity or capability and also to show how it can be used effectively. Then the goal is to partner with a company to leverage the technology and bring it to the commercial space.”
Patel notes that just like NASA, a lot of the technology they work with has dual uses. “Although we have a slant toward biodefense as a primary objective, a lot of the technology can be spun off into medical diagnostics or public health. For example, the highly miniaturized platforms can be reconfigured for fast, multiplex immunoassays to detect biomarkers for medical research.”
Tell us about your career path
From his Sandia beginnings as a staff scientist, Patel has moved rather quickly from the guy doing the experiments to the guy directing the work. Instead of day-to-day, hands-on efforts in the laboratory, he is develops and manages teams that push projects forward.
“This has most definitely been a learning experience and has accelerated my growth as a scientist and a researcher,” Patel quips. “Now I’m more like a PI. Through this, I have come to realize the importance of scientific teams – you really need a team to do good work; you can only do so much by yourself. The best chance of success is to get a diverse group of folks together behind one problem and then everybody brings their collective minds together to work to a solution. Being able to harness, direct and motivate that energy in the right direction is where I’m really beginning to prove myself now. It has been quite rewarding and not to say the least, challenging.”
Patel says he appreciates the opportunity to mentor young staff and rising post-docs and watch them grow to achieve great things. And, like for many, time management has been the hardest part for him.
“I really like to be in laboratory, but I often have to spend more time at the desk,” he states. “It is important that I do get into the lab often as a way to exercise my own intellect and not lose my grasp on what is real and what is not. That helps me when I write proposals or prepare presentations.” Sarcastically, Patel is often quoted to say, “If you can PowerPoint it, you can do it!” Keeping his edge sharp in the laboratory helps him stay grounded.
Patel states he is just now starting to hit his stride in terms of being able to bring ideas from proposal to execution to outcome – whether it is a contribution to scientific literature or an actual product that can be implemented to make someone’s life easier. “I want to continue exercising that and start to influence the decisions and the way we do research here – to help push us into new arenas and take advantage of the many new technologies on the horizon. I want to become a shaper of the vision of what Sandia can do to provide for our country.”
How did you get the SLAS Innovation Award?
Patel was very humbled to hear his name called at LabAutomation2011 as winner of the SLAS Innovation Award. He knew he had submitted a good project but with all the leading science and interesting work on areas of great impact being presented, he knew the competition was fierce.
“It was very, very nice to be selected and hear that people recognized good science and good work in a new area that could make an impact,” Patel quips. “I owe huge thanks to the full Sandia team who worked on the project. Biologists, chemists, mechanical and electrical engineers worked together to move the project forward. Sandia is really good at putting multi-disciplinary teams together to solve challenging problems. My work has an impact in biology but fundamentally is rooted in engineering. You can’t do one without the other!”
RapTOR – Rapid Threat Organism Recognition – is a grand challenge project at Sandia focused on detecting new and novel pathogens through sequencing as a public health tool to prevent outbreaks. Patel says the project leverages the talent from three Sandia groups and a great number of talented people in those departments – Advanced Engineering and Systems Deployment, Systems Biology, and Biotechnology and Bioengineering. One aspect of this RapTOR project is the Automated Molecular Biology platform, which prepares the nucleic acid sample for the sequencers to improve the efficiency of identifying new diseases. Patel’s role on the project has been to lead the development of the Automated Molecular Biology, which maximizes the throughput of modern sequencers platform by suppressing non-informative DNA and automating the steps necessary to prepare the samples for sequencing.
For example, “the total nucleic acid extracted from a sick person’s blood sample, contains both human DNA and pathogen DNA,” he explains. “To get to the cause of their illness, it is beneficial if we suppress the non-informative human DNA and enrich the remaining fraction containing the pathogen DNA so that it can be identified and characterized in greater detail. This has been a challenge in the sequencing field because most of this work is still at the benchtop and slow. We are applying our engineered microfluidic platforms to improve the speed for processing and dramatically improve the sensitivity for sequencing.”
Since LabAutomation, the Automated Molecular Biology platform team has taken their work well past the proof of principle stage and is on the cusp of integrating the sample preparation workflow with a state-of-the-art sequencer. Patel has coauthored a paper on their progress, which will be published in the December 2011 issue of JALA. Visit JALA Online to read “Automated Digital Microfluidic Sample Preparation for Next Generation DNA Sequencing.”
Receiving the Innovation Award contributed to Patel’s career growth in a number of ways. It also helped elevate interest in the technology, which enabled Sandia to move it into new areas calling for more generalized diagnostic tool – beyond sequencing for unknown pathogens.
“It’s been a catalyst for a lot of new projects,” he exclaims. “A few folks in the Palm Springs audience caught wind of the presentation. I’ve had conversations with folks in the growing sequencing community, and as a result I was invited to be keynote speaker at a sequencing conference. This was a nice way of showing the technology and interfacing directly with the eventual users – the application folks who could truly benefit from this work.”
Tell us about your Non-Science Activities
Work/life balance takes work, Patel says, especially with a family. Patel and his wife have a young daughter and he believes in modern science, people have to be especially more vigilant to attain a good work/life balance.
“Having a child puts your research work in perspective,” he offers. “As much as Blackberries and iPhones have helped so that we do not have to remain tied to our computers, they can be a blessing in disguise. It’s a continual struggle to leave stuff at home when I take my daughter to the park!”
Patel calls himself a hands-on type of guy – he loves fixing things, working on cars and home improvement projects.
“At Sandia, you work on projects that have two and three-year time scales,” he says. “You have to have patience for things to develop. That’s why I like do it yourself home projects. For example, there is immediate gratification when cutting your lawn or painting your house. I like to use my hands and get dirty! My wife, however, would likely say that I lose interest about three-quarters of the way through most of my home improvement projects though!”