Darlene Solomon_web

Agilent’s Solomon to address ‘the century of biology’ at IMS 2015

May 14, 2015

“The century of biology is great for engineering,” said Dr. Darlene Solomon. She will elaborate on that point in a keynote address at the International Microwave Symposium 2015, Thursday evening May 21, in Phoenix. Solomon is chief technology officer and senior vice president of Agilent Technologies, which addresses the life-sciences, diagnostics, and applied-chemistry markets after recently spinning off its electronics measurement business into Keysight Technologies.

Dr. Darlene Solomon (Courtesy of Agilent Technologies)

With its focus on chemical and biological measurement, Agilent is a key partner for the applied-chemistry market, addressing food-safety, energy, environmental, and pharmaceutical applications, Solomon said in a phone interview Tuesday. A recent emphasis has been on growing its life-science, clinical-research, and cancer-diagnostics initiatives, with a focus on advancing laboratory solutions that include bioreagents, hardware, software and informatics, services, and support.

Solomon said that when she began overseeing research and development back in 2003, molecular analysis represented less than 20% of Agilent’s business. That percentage has steadily increased to the point where both the molecular and electronic measurement businesses were ready to stand on their own, and it made sense to separate the two to let each organization focus on its own growth opportunities. Nevertheless, Solomon said, “I enjoyed the breadth of the old Agilent. But the new Agilent is where my expertise is centered, and I could not be more excited to help advance game-changing technologies we are developing internally and together with external academic and industrial partners.”

Addressing a meeting at IMS back in 2009, Solomon quoted Maxwell to the effect that “to measure is to know.” When asked if that maxim continues to apply, she said it is becoming increasingly important in biology. Over the last 20 years, she said, biology has transitioned from a qualitative descriptive science to an increasingly quantitative one in which the measurement side is becoming far more central. “There are many ways in which principles of engineering apply to biology as it becomes more quantitative, and at some point perhaps even well-enough understood to be modeled and predicted,” she said.

Solomon said she would like IMS attendees to come away from her keynote address with this message: this is the beginning of the century of biology, whereas the last century was the century of physics. Physics continues to advance significantly, she said, but the rate of change in biology is really impacting our world. Further, she said, attendees may identify touch points where biology and electronics might converge. “My experience in industry and at Agilent is that we see many of the most impactful innovations happening at the interfaces across disciplines,” she said.

The physics advances of the last century were driven in part by the invention of the transistor and the scaling of transistors in accordance with Moore’s Law. When asked if there were similar enabling breakthroughs in in biology this century, she cited the ability to exploit DNA. “Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology goes back a while,” she said, “but there are incredible additional advances in our ability to harness the power of DNA. Sequencing DNA is equivalent to reading DNA and has become fast and relatively inexpensive, but now we have moved beyond that, and it’s also possible to very effectively synthesize DNA, which is the equivalent of writing DNA. And there are incredible new advancements now taking hold in going beyond reading and writing to editing DNA through CRISPR/Cas technologies.”

She continued, “Additional fundamental advancements have been in systems/integrated biology and tools to understand biological pathways—both DNA and systems-biology advances are important Agilent platform solutions. These capabilities are enabling completely new paradigms in genomics and cellular understanding and control, much as the invention of the transistor.”

In addition, she cited advances in computational capabilities and the ability to understanding how cells work at molecular level. One takeaway for the electrical engineer, she said, is that there are important ways cells communicate electrically, and there are electrical ways to probe the cell. “Think of engineering biology,” she said. “Do that in engineering-based mindset: reprogram the cell through the design of DNA changes, build the modified cell, and test it and analyze it.”

Back in her 2009 talk she had cited data visualization as an important area of research—and it remains so, especially with the accelerating capabilities of cloud computing and the ability to acquire, store, and process big data. In biology research, she said, experiments result in data sets that are very large, bringing together multidimensional and heterogeneous types of data. And image analysis also involves large files. In addition, she said, biology scaling results in a large number of samples from a large number of patients, and data security becomes a concern—which can be addressed by biology piggybacking on computational capabilities.

A computer science professor recently posited that over the next decade or so data scientists would contribute more to the advancement of medicine than doctors. Solomon called that a profound comment but suggested the case was overstated. “Data science is extremely important in life sciences,” she said, “and it is often a whole lot easier to generate data than to understand data. But doctors are still very important.”

When asked about current innovations at Agilent, she cited pushing the capabilities of mass spectrometry, gas phase analysis, and elemental analysis for environmental and food-safety applications. And work in protein analysis and metabolomics, she said, complements work in genomics. “Metabolites are downstream from genomics and more indicative of what going on inside our cells and tissues.” And, she said, “Agilent will continue to push what’s possible in the chemistry and analysis of nucleic acids.”

Solomon received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Stanford University and her doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry from MIT. She serves on multiple academic and government advisory and review boards, including the National Academies’ board on chemical sciences and technology, visiting committee on advanced technology of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, Stanford University interdisciplinary biosciences advisory council, University of California-Berkeley’s College of Engineering, and Bay Area Science and Innovation Consortium (BASIC). She has been the chief technology officer of Agilent Technologies since 2006.

She was inducted into the Women in Technology International’s Hall of Fame in 2001 and received the YWCA Tribute to Women and Industry Award in 2004. In addition, she was named to Diversity Journal’s “Women Worth Watching” in 2007 as well as Corporate Board Member’s “50 Top Women in Technology” in 2008.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

See related article “Health, engineering converge at International Microwave Symposium.”

To register for IMS visit http://www.ims2015.org/.

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