Dr. Caitlin DeJong is the first molecular biologist to be hired at HP Labs. She joined the Life Sciences Research Group in HP’s Print Adjacencies and 3D Lab last May on a three year post-doctoral research position. DeJong completed her Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she investigated the impact of a specific protein in regulating gene expression in early vertebrate development. We caught up with her recently to learn how a molecular biologist fits HP’s research needs and a little about what she’s been investigating.
HP: So how does a molecular biologist fit into HP’s research agenda?
Well, HP Labs was looking to apply its SERS sensor technology to the life sciences and better understand which of the company’s technological strengths could be leveraged with biomedical research to create new products/devices and services. They needed someone with experience in the life sciences to help do that – and that’s where I came in.
HP: And what was attractive to you about joining HP Labs as a molecular biologist?
Firstly, it seemed like a really neat opportunity to get exposure to industry. And then this was a chance to get in at the start of something – by coming in at the founding of the Life Science Research Group I could help influence the direction of things. Our investigations are pretty open ended at this point, so there’s a lot of scope for creativity. I’m also working with scientists from other disciplines that I would never have the opportunity to work with if I’d stayed working with other molecular biologists – that was appealing to me, too.
HP: How’s it been going?
I’ve been here ten months and the learning curve has been steep, but that’s good. One of the reasons I decided to come here was when I came to give a talk I got really good scientific questions from people who weren’t molecular biologists. That suggested people here were really good thinkers who do solid work, which has proven to be true.
HP: Can you tell us a little about your research?
Sure. Our research into SERS technology is all about looking for molecular signatures. What I’m doing is exploring how the SERS testing and diagnosis chip that we’re developing responds when we expose it to different biological fluids – where molecular signatures of different diseases will lie. These are things like blood, urine, saliva, and even breath. What are the molecular signatures you get from these? In these early studies, part of what I do is prepare different versions of these biofluids, eliminating certain molecular components from them, for example, and then comparing the molecular fingerprints of the results we get.
HP: What’s the long term goal here?
Eventually we want to be able to understand how the signatures differ when you compare a sample from someone healthy versus one that comes from someone with a specific disease. Then we’ll explore how we could use that information as a diagnostic or screening tool.
HP: What have you liked about working at HP Labs?
One thing I’ve liked has been that our projects have a clear, directed research agenda. Because the year is broken up into quarters, the work is also broken up into smaller, more bite-size increments with more decision points for making changes when compared with academic research, and I like that, too. It seems a little more efficient. People here also treat each other with a lot of respect.
HP: Has the post doc changed your idea of what you might do with your career?
It’s given me really good exposure to what research and development is like in industry, which is something I wanted. The motivation for our research is different from when I was in an academic lab; our efforts are focused on trying to create something that will actually become a product that will hopefully be used to make a difference in people’s lives so I feel like my scientific efforts are one step closer to having an impact. I like thinking about research from this angle because it’s expanding the way I address scientific questions, and because of that, this is a very good place to be.