People-Focused Innovation

September 23, 2022
Bryan Garner

For Baylor faculty, innovation is built on compassion—a desire to make the world better and improve outcomes. For some, their expertise is applied to serve children with autism; for others, it’s about ensuring that new materials are safe for human use.

At Baylor, researchers apply the highest levels of inquiry to impact the challenges they’re called to address. Whether in materials science—a collaborative discipline advancing new methods to create products that are safer, stronger, better for the environment, or altogether novel—or in mechanical engineering, where machines and computers come together to capture biological motion, the focus is on people.

Julia Chan, Ph.D., is the inaugural holder of The Tim and Sharalynn Fenn Family Endowed Chair in Materials Science after spending 22 years at Louisiana State University and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Baylor alumnus returned to her alma mater in 2022 to provide interdisciplinary materials science leadership. A recognized expert in quantum materials, she serves as a deputy editor for the renowned journal Science Advances, leading their physical science efforts.

Brian Garner, Ph.D., is an associate professor of mechanical engineering whose invention benefits individuals with many various disabilities, including children with autism. The MiraColt is a mechanical device that accurately reproduces the complex, multidimensional gait motion of a horse. It was inspired by equine-assisted therapies to expand access to the therapeutic benefits of equine motion . The MiraColt has been commercialized through Baylor’s Lab to Market Collaborative. A multidisciplinary team is currently studying its benefits for autism through a $600,000 grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Christie Sayes, Ph.D., serves as associate professor of environmental science at Baylor. An Air Force Research Fellow, her focus at the intersection of toxicology and advanced materials led her to develop a “lung-on-a-chip,” among other products, to simulate the human lung in real operational environments. Attention to the unintended consequences of new materials helps promote human health as advancements lead people to interact with a new class of products.

They share their thoughts on innovation, interdisciplinary research and the heart behind their work.

How would you describe your research focus?

Christie Sayes: Specifically, my lab works on emerging technologies, which includes advanced materials as well as technologies that are newly developed to improve our everyday way of life. We focus not only on how they improve upon past materials, but also study the implications, or unintended consequences, of those technologies and materials as well.

Julia Chan: I am a chemist and a materials scientist who cares about making new materials, characterizing new materials, and determining their physical properties and looping it back to synthesis. How do you make the new compound? So, quantum materials, that's what we do. I make new materials, not materials that have been made before. That's the novelty.

Brian Garner: My specialty is combining computer modeling and simulation with design of mechanical systems for bio-related applications. Some of my primary projects in recent years have been development of mechanisms that faithfully reproduce the complex motion patterns of living things. The mechanical horse is an example of that. I didn't start out with a vision for a mechanical horse, but I became interested in the benefits of that motion, and the project sprouted from there. Another active project along the same theme is a mechanical training device for the rodeo event of team roping.

As innovators by trade, to what extent has your own focus iterated to lead you where you are now?

Christie Sayes: My degree is in nanochemistry, and I received my Ph.D. in the heyday of nanotechnology and different engineered nanomaterials. My start is in materials science. And then I went into environmental science afterwards. Nanotechnology has two different sides to it. You have the intended applications, and then the unintended consequences of a material if it's misused or if it is released into the environment unintentionally or through waste. It just so happened that there was an opening, I suppose, for some leadership in the unintended consequences side of the shop. And that's where I fell into; I began training in toxicology, and on into environmental science.

Julia Chan: Quantum materials have interested me for a long time, precisely because we are constantly searching for something new. Quantum materials science involves a lot of physics and you’ll find engineers studying it. But as a scientist at the interface of disciplines, I think a lot about the fact that there’s not a universal theory that can explain some of the exotic phenomenon that is quantum in nature. And so that is exciting to me. At the end of the day, it’s all about answering how we are going to advance that field. How are we going to change the world?

Brian Garner: I’ve always had the desire to create and make things, even when I was young. So, that's deep within me—the desire to innovate, and to have an impact. I wanted to do something that would actually get out there in the world to benefit people, and I feel like the Lord blessed me and helped me with the opportunity to develop the mechanical horse. I never would have imagined making something like that, but I thought, ‘Let's see if we can make this work, and then see what happens.’ Over many years now the project has bloomed and blossomed from there. As I grew to understand how such a device could improve people’s quality of life…well, I became quite excited about that. The feedback and results that we're seeing from in-the-field practice and through interdisciplinary research indicate that it could be very impactful.

Dr. Sayes, you study the impact of new materials on health. As an Air Force research fellow, you’re interested in how advanced materials impact those who use them. Whether in the Air Force or otherwise, where do we find examples of the materials you study?

Christie Sayes: The first classic example would be sunscreens. There has been a lot of innovation around how we use cosmeceuticals. You're intentionally putting it on your body, on your skin, keep your skin from burning. Over the years, the cosmetic angle of these sunscreen materials has changed the materials that are used to make the form. On an occupational level, a lot of different engineered nanomaterials are made, and a lot of them are not solvent-based reactions. A lot of them are high temperature and high pressure, made in aerosol space. When they're made an aerosol, there’s an inhalation exposure in the workplace. And then of course, if you have an inhalation exposure in the workplace, that can produce an inflammatory response in your lung, even though that's not the intention of that particular nanomaterial. But during the occupational production process, that's when you have an unintended exposure.

And that’s where the lung on a chip that you developed comes in?

Christie Sayes: The gold standard in environmental health is, of course, to understand what the implications, the toxicities might be in an animal model or in the human itself. Certainly, we don't want to experiment on new materials on humans, and even experimenting on rodents or test animals can get pretty expensive. There are ethical issues associated with that. Taken together with the thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of potential byproducts and variations that a class of materials may have, it's just cost-prohibitive to be able to do any sort of safety testing with an animal. That was the motivation, to come up with a system that could allow us to test effects cost-effectively and ethically. We actually have now a lung on a chip, a gut on a chip and a brain on a chip. It actually requires advanced materials to make the chips. But yet the irony is that we're actually testing advanced materials. So, advanced materials from two different points of view.

Dr. Chan, when we talk about creating quantum materials, how can we visualize that?

Julia Chan: Here’s an example. Superconductivity and topological quantum materials are materials we're excited about. For example, imagine if we have a material with metallic and insulating behavior you might not expect. On the surface, it's metallic, but in the interior, it's insulating. Now, imagine having two different properties and one material that you would not expect. For example, you could have a copper wire that is metallic. You don't want to stick it a socket because you would electrocute yourself because all the electrons are going to go hay wire. They're excited. And that's not a good idea. That's why you put those outlet plugs to protect kids—because they are insulating. So, imagine a material with both of those properties. That’s an example of what we do.

Dr. Garner, you created a therapeutic device, that is now commercialized into its own company. From there, you’ve engaged in research with faculty in education, communication sciences and more, to study its impact for children with autism spectrum disorder. For you as an engineer, what is the experience of working with collaborators from totally different disciplines?

Brian Garner: It has been really an awesome experience, and honestly a great relief for someone like me. I’m just an engineer, having little knowledge or experience related to disabilities like autism, or corresponding therapies. But, to reach out to others who do have such knowledge and experience, and to see them get really interested and excited about working together, and want to contribute, and then step up and actually do it—it’s exciting. For example, behavioral assessments and speech assessments are not my area at all, but I'm able to let my great collaborators apply their expertise to take care of those things, and we can depend on each other to play our respective roles. It’s special to be able to make the different pieces fit together to achieve as a team way more than we could individually.

At Baylor, the heart of research is grounded in our mission, compassion for others, and a call to solve our world’s greatest challenges. Discover other conversations with faculty in cancer research, environmental health, human flourishing, and data sciences.