The White House recently recognized UC Berkeley associate professor of mechanical engineering Lydia Sohn for her placement as one of five finalists last year in an international competition to develop new tools for scientists.
Sponsored by six research foundations and held through InnoCentive, a company that crowdsources innovation solutions, the competition looks for innovative technologies from scientific fields, including mathematics and engineering, that can impact the life sciences. Sohn was recognized for working to develop a low-cost technique for scientists to sort and identify cells.
“When we got word that we were one of five finalists, we were absolutely elated,” Sohn said in an email.
Sohn has been developing an alternative technique to traditional methods of sorting cells — in which scientists place markers on cells and screen them through an instrument — that are complex and expensive. Sohn’s technique is a “label-free” platform that requires “little to no” sample preparation and can help scientists identify cell types more efficiently.
Sohn said she hopes that her technology will have a profound impact in immunology, cancer and regenerative medicine.
Before joining UC Berkeley in 2003, Sohn worked as an assistant professor of physics at Princeton University, where she began conducting research on low-cost platforms to screen cells. Sohn began her current project a few years ago with Karthik Balakrishnan, a campus doctoral student in mechanical engineering.
When Sohn learned of the competition last year, she saw an opportunity to share her work.
“We thought ‘Why not?’ We felt that we had an interesting, competitive technology,” Sohn said. “Plus, the challenge was being sponsored by a group of prestigious foundations.”
The sponsoring foundations included the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, W. M. Keck Foundation and Kavli Foundation.
Sohn’s work was chosen from among 200 entries from 30 countries by more than 900 judges representing 68 countries.
Each finalist received a cash prize of $40,000, $5000 or $1000 and was given the opportunity to meet with other finalists and foundation members, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations in Washington, D.C.
“It was really great to meet the other finalists and learn about the technologies they were developing,” Sohn said.
According to John Burris, president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the goal of the Washington trip was to allow researchers to “catalyze interactions” with federal agencies related to research and to offer visibility to both private and government-related organizations.
“What we all want to do is encourage novel ideas,” Burris said.
Sohn is now working to develop techniques for disease diagnosis in areas that lack big laboratories and have fewer resources, such as third-world countries.