The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast
Episode 17 with Ambika Bumb
We talk with Ambika Bumb, science and technology advisor to the department of state’s crisis management and strategy team, about nanotechnology, the pandemic, and biotech start-ups.
On The Bioinformatics CRO Podcast, we sit down with scientists to discuss interesting topics across biomedical research and to explore what made them who they are today.
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Ambika is the health science and technology advisor for the department of state’s crisis management and strategy. Previously she studied nanodiamonds as a NIH-Marshall Scholar and subsequently founded Bikanta applying nanodiamond technology to diagnostics.
Transcript of Episode 17: Ambika Bumb
Grant: Welcome to The Bioinformatics CRO podcast. I’m Grant Belgard and joining me today is Ambika Bumb. Ambika Bumb is the Health Science and Technology Advisor for the Department of State’s crisis management and strategy within the Office of the Secretary. She is currently a board member for the International Biomedical Research Alliance and has formerly been Strategic Advisor to the energy sciences area of Berkeley lab and CEO of the biotech Bikanta. She graduated from Georgia Tech and obtained her doctorate from the NIH-Oxford program, while also on the Marshall scholarship. She followed that up with two postdocs at the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Thank you for joining us today.
Ambika: Thank you for having me.
Grant: Great. So tell us about what you’re doing now.
Ambika: So I am in the office of the Secretary of State and I work primarily in the office of Crisis Management and Strategy. And so that’s literally what it sounds like: any crisis that is occurring, the management of what that response should be, how to better plan for future crises, and get protocols and SOPs of different kinds, strategic relationships, make sure that they’re maintained to be able to coordinate those responses.
All of that happens, from this office and I’m the health science and technology advisor to the office. So what that means for me, particularly, I started this position in December of 2019. And you can imagine then that I’ve been primarily working on global health security and particularly the COVID response.
Grant: That must’ve been nuts.
Ambika: Oh, it’s a bit insane. It has been such an experience. I’m a fan of the TV show Madam Secretary. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it or seen it before, but it’s all about a Secretary of State and handling a bunch of different issues. And so I semi took this position because I’m such a fan of the show, but I felt like I was in the TV show the first couple of weeks.
Like in the third week is when the rocket attacks happened on American citizens in Iraq and the embassy was attacked and that led to then the US counter attacking and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. So that all happened in my third week and as that was going on COVID was starting to sneak up.
And so it just really felt like: man so much is going on at the same time. And it was a very eye opening and somewhat insane experience at the beginning.
Grant: Yeah, lurching from crisis to crisis. It’s interesting because for most people, most of the time, things that happen like this in the news don’t impact their daily lives. Obviously COVID has been a grand exception to that, but for most people, they don’t really need to stay on top of the news. This is obviously quite different from you. How do you deal with the volume of information?
Ambika: Ah, yeah, a lot that comes through. Being in this particular office, we are tracking information that’s coming from media sources, from social media as well, but more critically from what is coming from post. So post means embassies or consulates that are out in the different nations. So they’re having their conversation with diplomats of other sorts within the country looking at what’s happening on the local level.
And so we coordinate with posts, but we also coordinate with offices within the DC side of the Department of State, we’re getting information from places like HHS and CDC. Well, that’s where I focus a lot of my attention because I’m looking a lot at global health security things.
You get very good at reading emails really quickly and triaging things, deleting stuff that’s not so critical and learning to prioritize what is immediate, what needs to maybe be addressed later, short one-liner kinds of passing of information and it’s kind of a skill you develop. It’s hard for me to explain. At the beginning, it was incredibly overwhelming to be like, do I have to read every sentence of each of these thousands of emails,
But internal and Department of State information is passed through cables; and they have a clear format on how they are conveying information. So you can learn to pick it up just like in scientific papers. You can get the take-home points from the abstract and the conclusions. And so you find ways of being efficient at reading, I guess.
Grant: What surprised you the most about what you found in this position? You had spent many years in academia, time in the biotech startup space, and then moving to government. So as a bit of a trifecta, what surprised you?
Ambika: I guess retroactively, it shouldn’t be so massively surprising, but things have a different pace of how they move in different scenarios. Right before I came to the Department of State, I was working within the DOE at the Lawrence Berkeley national labs. As you mentioned, I was a strategy advisor to the energy sciences area. And my project there was primarily on developing the vision for a new campus that would house a bunch of facilities related to energy sciences, nanotech, quantum tech, and to get anything moving.
There’s so many steps, so many processes, and everything takes time. You have to get a lot of buy-in from a bunch of people. And here I came in and in week four, essentially, I was sitting in on national security council meetings where decisions like we’re going to ban travel from certain areas and countries of the world completely, which had never been done before. And those decisions were made in a matter of 10 minutes. To see something like that, where a decision was made and enacted within like 24 hours or 72 hours, that is insanity. Just how quickly things can happen when you’re at that level of crises or at that level of resources. I thought that it would take a lot longer for anything to get done, but when it needs to get done stuff can get done very quickly. And I was just surprised by how that can be so quick.
Grant: Do you find it varies by the decision?
Ambika: Yeah, it definitely does. There are other things that take them way too long, but when something is of great concern to national security, that stuff moves very quickly. So how you define that national security priority becomes the issue.
Grant: Tell us about COVID because you had a very central seat to the US government response to this.
Ambika: In my initial days of being at CMS, we started getting reporting from posts about this new virus that had occurred. And I started digging into things from my own contacts in the virology world to try to get a better perspective on it. And as things took off, it was very interesting.
So I came to the Department of State because what I wanted was essentially like a government MBA experience. I wanted to understand how leadership functions, how they get stuff done, how they move mountains when needed, and who are the key players to actually make policy function? Definitely learned that within the first month or two of being here because I was sitting in on like national security council meetings.
Those are inter-agency meetings that are led by the White House, which brings in all the different departments or agencies jointly who have their different expertise to talk about the issues. And so when we were sitting in a national security council meeting where it was just about to start, and I was walking in with my supervisor, we got a notice that Wuhan had just been quarantined like an entire city being quarantined was, seemed insane at that point.
Now it’s very different, but at that point, that was very shocking news and at the meeting, which was ongoing at that point, everyone had to stop and say, we’re going to take a break. Everybody needs to go back to their own agencies and figure out how we are going to manage this. And from there all sorts of firsts happened. A travel advisory for the entire world. Don’t travel anywhere. That had never historically been done. Decisions like these were being discussed.
But what was interesting from a Department of State perspective and from a crisis management perspective was that in the 44 years that the crisis management & strategy has existed, there had never been a scenario where the same threat was occurring simultaneously overseas and in the US. Because as COVID started coming here, things had to change.
And so it was a lot of management of what’s happening externally, but also what’s going on internally and how we are going to still function. CMS is the lead on setting up task forces that span departments to coordinate the response. You bring in all the expertise from the relevant bureaus and offices, and then you all sit around a table–like what you imagine in movies–a control mission room with a bunch of people around a table with a lot of computers and big screens and maps everywhere.
That’s the traditional model, but we had to very quickly turn that into something that was virtual and the Department of State has a long way to go with technology. It’s not the same as my experience from Silicon Valley and the biotech industry. So getting everybody used to new tools immediately was one challenge, but we ended up coordinating a virtual task force of more than 400 officers that were serving from all over the place: 30 different offices and bureaus from different parts of the world.
It was one of the most high profile and complex operational responses that the state has executed to date. What we were managing was not so much the foreign aid policy component of things, we were focused on evacuating people, getting people out from all parts of the world. So the task force was called the repatriation task force.
The Department of State doesn’t have its own airport or its own fleet or anything. Each flight had to be individually chartered or organized. And there were 1100 flights that had to be organized. We brought back more than a hundred thousand people from different parts of the world. It was very complex, operationally to coordinate. And everybody’s story is so individual; there are people who are like missing their medication and people whose parents are stuck in some remote location. There were literally times when we had to send boats to collect people and bring them back and transport them from one town to another, to get them on a flight.
It was really eye-opening and personal. At the same time, from a management perspective, it was very complicated operationally. There’s a lot of data that had to be managed. You’re also wanting to understand if people are COVID positive and how to manage that. And how do you pay for all of these flights? How do you get approval to pay for all the flights? How do you get a flight crew that can actually do this because there are limits to how long a crew can fly? But working with foreign governments on this, getting flights into countries that don’t typically have them, and landing permissions into those countries.
Then there are cruise lines. And why were people going on cruise ships during a pandemic? But those are very complicated and because there’s so many health complications with this. There was an added level of work that had to be done. It was literally like playing diplomatic gymnastics, trying to coordinate all of these things. Eventually it became very clear that there were going to be a number of policy issues that had to be managed related to aid and getting vaccines and other things as they were developing.
So we set up what was called a coordination unit that then recruited diplomats from different offices. And that became the CGRC, coronavirus, global response coordination unit–alphabet soup from every agency I’ve worked in. It’s hard to remember which one is what. But now that is managing a lot of internal responses. And so it’s been very eye-opening how things have been managed globally versus domestically. My role has had less impact on the domestic side of things, but I’ve definitely been involved in a lot of those conversations.
Currently, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we get people to actually take the vaccines when they are available and engaging with people about that and whatever. It’s a lot about science communication. So as the only science person really in this office has been to interpret all the science that’s coming out of this and make bullets that are short and get the point across.
As scientists, we love to elaborate. Science is evolving. You learn more as you get more data. And so no one ever wants to be so presumptuous as to say that you know everything about everything. But in these kinds of scenarios, being very assertive about things that you do know is very critical. And so my role has been a lot about science communication for sure.
Grant: That’s really interesting. So I guess you kind of have to parse things very carefully, too, to be emphatic about what you know to be true and hope that others are doing the same and not just being blowhards, right?
Ambika: Yeah, exactly. You got the point I was trying to make. It was also very interesting how different worlds of mine that I’ve professionally gone across thus far have collided at different points during the past year. My first day as a grad student, I was in the National Institute of Health and Oxford-Cambridge program, as you were. On the very first day, they sat our class down–I think there were like 15 students–with Tony Faucci. And I remembered that conversation a lot throughout my graduate years.
Because I found his background in science and the way he has been leading NIAID very interesting. And then circle around to the first weeks of my new job. I was sitting in meetings with him as the pandemic was emerging and it was so interesting to see what he valued and what comments he made and how he managed the room at times.
It was interesting on that front. When I was sitting in the task force, I remember we had the news on and CNN bullets would come out about the vaccines in Oxford that are being developed. And because I’m on the International Biomedical Research Alliance board, which helps to work with students who are in this Oxford program who were working on this vaccine.
It was really like, man, I know the people who did that and like Adrian Hill who was a professor when I was there. And I did some work with him. He was up on the news there, and it’s just strange to be seeing people who you’ve interacted with coming around on the TV screen as you’re working on stuff.
And a lot of my role also became connecting with startups on the ground, providing insights on what kinds of things to work on. It was a nice merging of all the experiences that I’ve had in the past as well.
Grant: So let’s talk a bit about those experiences and maybe it might make logical sense to go chronologically. As a kid, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
Ambika: I don’t think I knew exactly what I wanted to be. So what I can say is that my father is an engineer. My mom is in sciences as well, and I definitely had a personal interest in science subjects. I also felt like I did well in them, so that helps you. For me at least, it made me want to do more because it felt like I was good at it. So I’m Indian and Indian family culture really plays a lot into how your life develops and molds. And I feel like there’s this respect for knowledge and education that I think has just been passed down in my genes.
My father was the first PhD in his family. My maternal grandfather went back to school in his 40s to become a veterinarian. And he also made sure his two daughters had opportunities to broaden their horizons, and they were the first women from their town to go to college in STEM. So my aunt is a physician. My mom majored in chemistry.
When my parents came to the US, they encouraged and were very supportive of exploring any education, but they encouraged our STEM work. And I liked engineering, medicine, economics, and law. I liked all of those. That’s what I liked in high school. So I tried to blend as many of them as I could when I went into college, and I chose to study like biomed engineering and econ, because it covered as many of those that I could fit into education as an undergrad.
I’ve always been drawn to finding solutions to things and building stuff. And I think my parents might be a bit like that as well. And some of the kinds of activities that we did as a kid: I would build furniture with my father. I would do lots of art projects. And so it was like creating a vision about something and completing it. I don’t know if that was my parents’ way of keeping us occupied. I don’t know that it was very intentional, but that’s how things were.
I’m like one of those people who when I have a to-do list, I check off things. It makes me happy. Feeling like I’ve accomplished something or getting to a solution on something, I think that that’s probably what was instilled in me from those earlier days. I mean that leads you to engineering in some ways. Maybe that’s where that came from.
Grant: So tell us about grad school.
Ambika: For grad school, I was very fortunate, like you, to be able to get into this one program that allowed you to have a research PhD graduate experience that’s international. So my PhD work was done both at the National Institutes of Health here in DC, as well as abroad at Oxford. And I cobbled together a project. I didn’t go in with this vision of I’m going to do this particular thing and that’s going to be what I like. Again, I kind of just went in with this attitude of, I like solving problems, but I don’t know what problem I want to solve. A lot of people go to grad school, and they know exactly what they want to research and dive into.
All I knew is that I like applying engineering skills and that’s like such a naive way to approach anything, but that’s what I did do. And what I ended up doing is I interviewed with like 14 labs or 16 labs at Oxford and similar numbers at the NIH. And of the projects that I was discussing and brainstorming at all those interviews, the one that caught my attention most was: so I went to this one lab, Lars Fugger, he’s an immunologist and he primarily works on multiple sclerosis models. And while I was sitting there, he saw in my CV that I had done some nanoparticle or nanotech work for undergrad research.
And he on the spot brainstormed an idea of being able to better follow T-cells in some of the animal models he has using nanoparticles, if I could figure out how to do that. He had no experience with it, he had no idea of how to go about doing it. He was like: if you can figure that out, that would be a project you like to do.
And so I was just attracted to that idea. So in the end, I ended up bringing together four different PIs. I had an advisor: Lars Fugger, who was an immunologist; at Oxford, I found someone in the engineering department whose name is Peter Dobson, with some material science background as well; and at the NIH, I worked with Martin Brechbiel in the radio-immune oncology branch; and with Peter Choyke, who is the head of the molecular imaging clinic. And so basically the fields that were being brought together for this were: chemistry, imaging, material science and cancer and autoimmune diseases.
So the project I worked on was developing this trimodal imaging particle, so what I mean by that is you can image it in magnetic resonance imaging, optical imaging, as well as SPECT nuclear imaging. Using the same particle, you can get different kinds of information from these imaging techniques. And to make it a platform technology that could be applied in a variety of kinds of pathologies and diseases, we tested it in autoimmune diseases, as well as in cancer.
So it was my first foray into nanomedicine and I loved it. I don’t know what your experience was in this program, but for me it was very eye opening to me. How interdisciplinary science is amazing. You can bring resources from different disciplines together, but also different institutes and cultures.
I think in Oxford, I learned how to think wisely about the smartest experiment to do because resources are a little bit more limited in that university setting. And then at the NIH where resources were plenty, I learned about how to do science by just trying 10 experiments and see the results that you get.
And to be able to have a graduate experience with both of those kinds of ways of thinking, I think really benefited me. But also the other thing that came out of this was: the manager of this project was not any one PI it was me. So you learned a lot about how to manage a project and how to manage people and cultures and all sorts of things. And I definitely think that those skillsets carried forward in my next endeavors, for sure.
Grant: Yeah. So tell us about what you did in your post-docs.
Ambika: Yes. So afterwards, I came back to the National Cancer Institute and I worked on a project specifically trying to image glioblastomas or brain tumors.They have particular challenges because you’re trying to cross the blood-brain barrier, which is like this extra shield for your brain. And getting anything across it to better image is more complicated. And so we were using basically this scorpion toxin, that you can attach to the side of the particle to try to break through the blood-brain barrier into these tumors.
And I followed that on with another postdoc that was kind of a different perspective. So most of my work was about how do you translate things into humans and into clinics? And this was more going the other direction of understanding basic molecular science stuff. And I moved into a biophysics lab that was doing single molecule imaging.
And that’s where we developed some technology around a different kind of nanoparticle called nanodiamonds. They have some really unique imaging properties that then launched a huge part of my career after that. But it started in that lab and working on making nanodiamonds usable by putting coatings on them. That actually makes them able to be used in biomed applications.
Grant: So after that, as you alluded to, your career took a very different turn. Can you tell us about that?
Ambika: It starts with understanding what the technology was. So the nanodiamonds are particles that are essentially microscopic diamond dust. They’re on the order of 10,000 times smaller than a strand of hair.
And they have these fluorescent properties that are infinite. They don’t ever blink or bleach. Bleaching is when a fluorescent signal starts going away. And that makes them very unique for imaging applications and single molecules. You can track molecules individually a lot better, but I was interested in this other property where you can control their signal because their electron spin states are such that they have a triplet spin state, which basically means you can control their signal with a magnet.
So, if you’re flipping a magnetic field on and off, you can actually make the signal go from bright to dim, bright to dim. And that is interesting because if you had them in tissue or if you had them in a patient, and you’re controlling the signal from bright to dim, bright to dim, while everything else is constant, you can cancel out noise and background a lot.
That’s the challenge with fluorescent imaging, optical imaging in tissue and in humans is you don’t get a lot of depth penetration because you have so much background from other signals that naturally exist from blood and water and other molecules in your skin.
And so we developed an instrument that would allow you to enhance the signal coming from the diamond. And diamond material is also very biocompatible. It doesn’t seem to have any toxicity issues. And so through this, we developed a method and an instrument, both on the particle side, so the contrast agent that you’re injecting, as well as the imaging instrumentation side that would improve signal a hundred fold over conventional imaging techniques.
And so what that can open up as far as opportunities in the clinic is very wide and very exciting. Because a lot of the robotic surgery directions that things are going into would want fluorescent optical signals to follow not magnetic resonance and nuclear kinds of imaging. Because those have other more complicated situations of how you have to image. Light imaging is the least complicated.
So if you have a good imaging agent, it opens up all sorts of doors. So that led to me starting Bikanta. I launched the company in 2013 and we had a lot of great success. So we went through the whole journey of running a startup and developing a product from scratch and finding customers, working with partners and legal teams. You know, every aspect of what running a startup comes with.
Grant: What propelled you to take that leap?
Ambika: Yeah, so when I was in post-doc mode, I was definitely applying for academic positions. And I was thinking about the more–I don’t know if you’d say traditional, but–traditional paths of having my own lab. And I was interviewing at universities. And I was very interested in this work, not just being at the bench, but translating it into actual patients.
And for that, you have to commercialize. The primary route of doing that is through a company. Initially I was debating whether to try to launch a company while being a PI at a university as well, but we were recognized with an award by the NIH for technical achievement, one of two awards that year, for developing a platform technology that can apply to so many different diseases.
And that started actually getting people approaching me about starting a company. Then it just kind of felt like the timing was better for us to just launch this. I put all my effort into getting it off the ground. In my head, I was thinking, I’m going to get this company started and then I’m going to be on the scientific board and then go back to doing academia and doing research. That was my plan. But as I started doing the startup. I was able to raise the funds very quickly. And once you have money, man, can you go fast? And you can really build a team and get stuff done.
And it was just moving so fast and eating my bigger picture goals of wanting to actually translate this. I’ve realized looking back now that a lot of my career decisions have been driven by where I feel I’m making an impact. Each step has been about broadening how I can personally have an impact on a bigger picture. And commercializing the technology definitely was going to help with getting it out faster. And so it wasn’t this preconceived notion that I definitely have to do this startup. It wasn’t my plan when I was a postdoc, but I took the leap because it felt like the right thing to do with that moment. And I thought that I could re-engage on faculty position discussions later if I needed to. But I enjoyed it. And I stayed with the company on that path.
Grant: So what did you do?
Ambika: Man, there’s so many different categories of things that you do as a startup. Initially, it’s bringing on a team, raising the funds. Learning how to talk to investors is a very different skill set than learning how to talk to scientific audiences. Learning who the key players are and all that stuff. Even some of the basics, like how you set up a company payroll, and all the things that seem minor. But you start with all of that and you build out your team. Once you have a team you’re moving really fast on the science side.
I was working a lot with Lawrence Berkeley labs at that point, because we were using their facilities. I found resources that we could use. As a startup you’re mean, and you’re lean. You don’t have a lot of resources and you are hungry to get stuff done quickly because it is important that you deliver for your investors, so you can get more, keep moving forward. There’s like this time clock pressure also because you’re paying people, As a leader of the company you have to make sure you can keep having funds to pay people.
So there’s this extra level of responsibility, but there is an efficiency with which you’ve moved and that’s also protecting your IP, getting IP in place, getting collaborators in place. So we were working a lot with customers and universities and we were using the facilities that we could access for free.
And we ended up doing a lot of work with Lawrence Berkeley national labs. It’s like developing an understanding of your market, developing the plans for it, communicating about things, knowing how to hire and get a good team, creating good culture, all sorts of different aspects. It’s it was a very fulfilling thing to work on so many different ranges of things that are all driving towards the end goal of getting this technology out.
Grant: And what did you guys get out?
Ambika: So here’s the interesting thing. Being in a diagnostic space is not as easy as being in therapeutics. And so we were very fortunate at the beginning when Bikanta was first being launched. There were a lot of things that sort of timed out well to get a lot of interest in our company.
The Nobel prizes that year included a bunch of people who were doing nanodiamond work. Google X decided to launch into areas related to nanomedicine and nanotech, and there were all these articles comparing Bikanta and Google X. The timing of things was such that Y Combinator–you know, the Harvard of accelerators if you want to call it that–decided to go into biotech companies and Bikanta was one of the first biotech companies that they invested in that had clinical directions.
And so the timing was really optimal. So many tech investors were turning to invest in biotech and we presented ourselves well, got a lot of funding and things went really well. Our technology development went very fast and we got to the stage of wanting to launch this into clinical trials. And then around that time is when Theranos happened and they exploded.
Grant: Timing is everything right? Good or bad.
Ambika: Timing is everything! In general, investment in diagnostics is a lot smaller than therapeutics. It’s something that I’m sure you’re very familiar with. And when Theranos blew up, it was a diagnostic company. Investors got spooked and then raising money in a diagnostic space became very, very challenging. And I tried to frame the companies more in imaging and different things, but we were only able to raise a partial amount of money and not enough to close out the full round. So in the end we ended up transferring the technology, the IP back to the NIH. And I had to decide to dissolve the company because of the timing. Launching a clinical trial requires a large amount of capital.
I learned a lot in that process as well, about how to make decisions that are tough like that. Because the technology clearly has a lot of value and there is interest in where it can move and develop. But unfortunately we weren’t able to make that happen after five and a half years, Bikanta was not the avenue to make it happen.
Grant: Do you think nanodiamonds will one day be used for diagnostics in humans?
Ambika: I do. Yeah. It’s already being done in a very academic setting and there are about six different companies that are doing this kind of work as well.
There are clinical trials that have already started and have completed actually in other kinds of applications, not so much in cancer yet. That’s where Bikanta was focused. We were starting with melanoma as the first target. But there’ve been uses in dental applications and stem cell related work.
And so there is definitely a lot that is going on. Nanodiamonds in general are used in other fields in insane amounts. Nanodiamond work originally began in physics, in quantum tech kinds of applications: cubits and quantum computing. There are a lot of directions there. So nanodiamonds are going to be around for a really long time, but translating them into medicine…
I think COVID actually has changed a lot: you know, testing and diagnosing COVID. How much money has been thrown at diagnostics in the past year? Everything about biotech is going to be very different after the pandemic experience.
So I do have a lot of hope that this is going to re-kick up again. In general, molecular imaging as a field is successful. It’s doing very well and it’s only going to get better because that’s the direction the medicine is heading.
Grant: It’s really interesting, speaking with a number of entrepreneurs who started their first companies at different times how this theme of timing is very, very often related to external circumstances. So, you know, the .com boom, and then the .com bust and all this is a very consistent theme.
Ambika: Yeah. I don’t know what your experience has been, but I have found that the more and more I’m progressing through different stages of my career. It is so much about factors other than just pure science or the technology itself. That is what drove all of this to begin with for me. I was so interested in technology development. It plays with your imagination. It’s so motivating and inspiring to work on that stuff. And that continues to be there, but to actually make something and have impact with it, to drive it into the market, to get it out to people,and then once it’s out in the market for it to be wide enough reaching to everybody, those factors are a lot of other kinds of skills.
It’s about being good at developing partnerships. It’s about communication. It is about timing. It’s a lot about who you know, actually. That’s what it’s really about. And it’s a lot of these other kinds of soft skills. They’re not the science skills that take the technology forward. It’s all these other factors that really end up leading to it being the most impactful.
Grant: So then you took a turn into the world of nano and science policy. Tell us about that.
Ambika: Yeah. So while I was running Bikanta, I was from time to time writing about nano policy issues as well. Even while I was in grad school and postdoc. So I was on the Marshall scholarship during grad school, and part of the mission and bigger picture of the Marshall Program is creating relationships between and maintaining the US and UK relationship. That definitely played out while I was in grad school and post-doc for me on a nanoscience level because one of my advisors from Oxford, Peter Dobson, was also the advisor to medical research councils in the UK on nanotechnology.
He did a lot of policy and government advising kinds of work there. And when I was at the NIH, I got involved in the national nanotech initiative and I invited him and did a lot of connecting back and forth with people who were working on nanoscience policy in the UK, as well as here in the US.
And so I just always had on the side this interest of how we’re thinking about the bigger picture and where funding goes, because funding leads to like resources that allow you to actually do the science. It’s not just science. Where’s the money coming from? Where are the connections and whatnot?
So even though I was running Bikanta, I continued to be engaged in those kinds of things. And I would write about nano policy for things like tech crunch or different avenues. And because we were accessing user facilities at a national lab, they would often bring in policymakers, Congressman, whatever, to tour the facilities. And I would often be someone who they would talk to about how this is benefiting the entrepreneurial community and startups, and like how it’s creating jobs, et cetera.
Through that, I ended up being recruited to take a position at Lawrence Berkeley labs in one of the offices and leadership, thinking about the bigger picture of things. And so. That’s where that step took. And I mentioned that I feel like I’ve been progressing toward making a bigger and bigger impact. And definitely the resources that the government has was something that I was intrigued about. How to develop multiple different kinds of technology simultaneously and move things forward. And how do you do that from a lab perspective? So that’s what drew me to that position.
Grant: So you’ve worked across all these different areas. What do you see as the major differences among academia, biotech startups, and government?
Ambika: I love talking about this topic. I can talk about this for hours if you want to. Okay. So the way I would think about it is academics are very creative. If you look at the academic side in universities and whatnot, there’s a lot of creativity. There’s a lot of motivation for just understanding knowledge. That’s kind of where everything is driven from. And so you get some of the smartest people, the most innovative people in academia.
On the entrepreneurial side it’s very much about speed and execution and they’re driven by the market by what can be translational and what can also bring financial return. So that’s entrepreneurial as well as a larger industry, I would say. And then from the government side, the government has all these massive, massive resources, insane amounts of resources that you can then direct to different things.
And what they’re driven by is social impact and public need, as I’m thinking through things that I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen. I’m really trying to see how we can maximize the intersection of these three things. How can we better form bridges between them because, in some ways, they’ve been very siloed.
Through this past year with the pandemic, clearly the collaboration between industry and government made massive impacts. That’s what drove all the diagnostic testing technologies, Operation Warp Speed, Radox. All of these programs were these massive collaborations or partnerships you could say between both entrepreneurial and larger industry, the industry as a whole and government. Government through a lot of money that allowed things to get commercialized and move quickly and the vaccines as well. So this past year has been a prime example about where the benefit of crossing all three of these bridges really is important and that’s kind of the space that I want to explore more as I move forward in my own career.
Grant: Cool. So what areas of biotech are you most excited about?
Ambika: I’m going to say the kinds of things I was most excited about, like before I came into my current role and that would definitely be: personalized treatments of rare diseases. Sequencing your genome has never been cheaper. The cost has gone down from $95 million to $950 in just 10 years.
And so that efficiency of being able to understand individuals and then tailor treatments. That’s just a wide area of things that excites me. I also think a lot about precision treatment, which correlates with that. So real-time imaging and diagnostics and sensing in general, those technologies combined with machine learning, so you have this auto feedback loop about stuff as you’re developing your therapy or doing your therapy, if it’s surgical.
And in that similar vein, Theragnostics, which is a combination of therapy and diagnostics, which is where a lot of nano work happens, but other stuff as well. I think those areas have always been, in my mind, great areas for us to be moving forward in.
And that has a lot to do with materials development and big data related information, AI machine learning kinds of techniques, all combined. And I also find it very interesting, a lot of the virtual and augmented reality work that’s happening in these kinds of spaces. Although I still don’t know where it’s going to go yet, I’m intrigued by some of the stuff that’s going on with it.
But now in the past year, in the role that I’ve been in, my framework of thinking has changed a little bit, almost like putting on a public servant hat and looking at the whole of society today. I think the things that maybe are less sexy, but are really important to be working on are the evolution of clinical trials, how quickly and how still reliably we get technologies out, but also learning from this pandemic, the resilience of a lot of our systems.
And I know this isn’t as biotech and sexy, but it’s about how we manufacture or supply systems or some of the materials that you need to actually develop these things and get them out quickly, the supply chains of those. And the partnerships of industry and government. So again, it’s not like a particular technology, but the bigger, broader picture of this.
And part of it has to do with democratizing our innovations across the country. So if you think about GPS, it was a technology that was democratized and how it impacts so many different things in life now. Can you imagine where the benefits of GPS have gone by doing something like that? And we have all these national labs that are just treasures of our country that produce so much information and knowledge, but linking them to actually turning into commercial technologies quicker, the policy side…
I’m really excited by particular technologies for sure, but a lot of my brain work has gone towards what will set our country forward for the future. Like it’s been a lot of discussion about how China is going to beat us in terms of innovation within seven years.
And how are we going to continue to stay competitive? In some ways it’s basic things like having good broadband everywhere. The big part of this, if you’re thinking about the bigger picture, for sure, is education. How we treat STEM education from the early years on. Who gets access to it? Underprivileged and underserved communities as well.
And then because of the kinds of academic journeys I have been on, I think a lot about how are you training as a PhD, as an MD, as a scientist, what kinds of skills are you garnering along that process? How you might have interdisciplinary ideas and what kinds of these other softer skills that I kind of mentioned in terms of how to manage projects are you developing. Because the reality is that some kinds of supply chains are going to be cheaper in other countries.
So what are the skillsets that Americans can offer? It has a lot to do with risk-taking, being innovative and being good at managing things and communicating out. I mean like why is quantum tech a big talked about thing? A lot of it has to do because there’s interest from certain parties about it and that has to do with people being good about communicating the benefits of it. And so it’s like these skills of good communication and other things that need to be incorporated into your science training.
It didn’t really happen. At least I didn’t experience it. It happened on the side, but not as a primary thing. I’ve mentioned things that I’m interested in, but also I think some of the other bigger problems to solve are not as sexy, but important things to keep our country innovative and competitive moving forward.
Grant: I think the systematic approach is really interesting. I wonder how many things are kind of lurking beneath the surface waiting to be fixed and we don’t even realize it. I think a lot of myths have exploded over the last year with how remarkably fast we were able to get almost miraculously effective vaccines out for COVID and it really makes you think what could we have been doing differently all along and what can we do differently going forward?
Like I hope we learned from this and maybe make changes around how we do things because certainly COVID is especially urgent, but Alzheimer’s is urgent, cancer research, etc. There are a lot of things that are really important and affect a huge number of people where maybe it would make sense to kind of review how we’re doing things and see if we can do it faster.
Yeah. Do you have any parting thoughts for our listeners, maybe advice for younger scientists.
Ambika: So advice that I would give looking back at what my experiences have been: follow your interests and your passions, but as you’re moving forward, whether it’s in your particular science field or as you’re broadening into other aspects that impact how your science translates and gets out to folks, keep in mind some of these other things that are also important. It’s about learning what others are doing and being open to how that might shift, how you’re thinking on things. Because keeping your mind open about these things brings on these other opportunities that can sometimes be so much more like exponentially effective at getting you to where you want to.
It sounds like I’m saying something that’s very vague, but if I hadn’t been open to some of these ideas, I don’t think I would have gone down the path of doing a startup and that experience completely changed everything that I’ve done since. And when I initially took this job in crisis management strategy, I wasn’t expecting there to be any direct application of all the years of training in all my specialty into nano medicine and experience of doing a startup and working at a national lab.
I didn’t have any clear vision of how this was going to translate into something in this office. And I was motivated to come here because of just wanting to gain other kinds of skill sets and perspectives and take those back into the work I do later. But also I just thought it would be more impactful for me to come in during this timeframe and be a bridge into what I hoped was going to be the next administration and be able to bridge some of those science communication gaps.
If I hadn’t chosen to just be open to that, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to also be in this position to see how the pandemic played out, not that I want there to be a pandemic or anything like that. But the experience that I’ve gained through this, I don’t even think I can fully communicate it yet, or understand the perspective that it has given me on how I think about the problems I want to tackle and how I want to tackle them.
Combining the different experiences I have, all of that starts off with being open. So be fun, I guess, is the take home message. Just as a scientist, you are always seeking data and being humble enough to know that you don’t know everything, but to actually more actively seek out the information, I think it can benefit you in how you approach things in the bigger picture as you progress further.
Grant: I think that’s really good advice. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a lot of fun.
Ambika: Yeah. Same here.