Dr. Clarise Starr, a deputy chief, lab director and portfolio lead from the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM) within the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), received the 2018 Scientist of the Year award from HENAAC. Starr is the director of the biological select agents and toxins laboratory and the leader of the research pathogen detection and therapeutics portfolio.
Starr accepted the Scientist of the Year award during the 30th Annual HENAAC Conference, a weeklong event organized by Great Minds in STEM (GMiS) in Pasadena, California. GMiS, a non-profit organization, hosts this annual conference to highlight talented engineers and scientists and inspire the next generation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professionals within the Hispanic community.
In her role as deputy chief, Starr helps to design a $13 million research portfolio that meets Air Force warfighter needs. The applied technology and genomics laboratory serves the Air Force and the Department of Defense by bringing cutting-edge science and technology to public health, infectious disease control, biosurveillance, biodefense and human performance.
My goal is to “help protect [our warfighters] and support them in achieving their mission,” she explains. “They make sacrifices to project our country so I give my best so they can be their best.”
Starr and her colleagues monitor health events that could jeopardize Air Force personnel. Their goal is to protect the military from biological threats and infectious diseases.
Steadfast in her research, Starr describes how she follows clues and solves mysteries to “figure out ways to combat unknown infection pathways.”
“It’s easy to get passionate about viruses and bacteria,” she says.
In the lab, Starr’s goal is to “figure out what is happening” and “discover the underlying cause when people are sick.”
“To provide that answer to someone is one of the greatest feelings in the world,” she explains.
Starr began her Air Force career after graduating from the University of Michigan’s Microbiology/Immunology Program. As a junior scientist, she helped to develop a portable, diagnostic instrument for detecting biological weapons. She also advanced Polymerase Chain Reaction for pathogen detection and identification.
In 2009, she was a member of a team that identified a new H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak. After this public health crisis, she and her colleagues developed a way to identify pathogens from any material using next-generation gene sequencing and advanced bioinformatics.
In 2011, she moved from San Antonio, Texas to Dayton, Ohio to work for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) where she established the first genomics research lab in the Air Force.
She considers “helping to bring this technology (genetics) inside the fence” as her greatest career accomplishment. Starr described this experience as “an extreme undertaking.”
“Genetic data is huge, and analysis is labor intensive,” she explains. “Our group [developed] ways to deal with this challenge.”
In state-of-the art research facilities, Starr and her colleagues utilize analytic techniques to sequence the human genome and discover unique pathogens. The lab typically manages fifteen to twenty projects per year valued at more than $3 million. Starr says the best part of her job is working with talented individuals who enjoy science just as much as she does. She enjoys witnessing her team’s enthusiasm and seeing what they come up with in the lab.
While at AFRL, Starr progressed from technical director to team leader to her current role as deputy division chief. She said that transitioning to leadership was natural since she often assumed the role when working in groups.
She still does research and development work, saying she is fortunate that [she] “can still do science in [her] current role.”
Starr has great hopes for the future of genomics research and believes it will provide answers to those in need and limit the spread of infectious diseases. She is excited to see what the future holds.
In addition to her leadership role, Starr represents the Air Force in various Department of Defense working groups where she influences strategy, policy, requirements and programs. She is the Air Force’s leading subject matter expert in Microbiology, Biosafety and advanced laboratory management.
Starr is also active in STEM outreach programs, and she stresses the importance of giving back.
“We must prepare the next generation,” she asserts. “As STEM professionals, we need to commit to growing and nurturing the next generation so we can move our field forward.”
A Conversation with Scientist of the Year Dr. Clarise Starr, HENAAC Award Winner
What does the field of genomics involve?
We use genetics, DNA and/or RNA to identify new and emerging pathogens (bacteria and viruses that could potentially be in the environment or in a human sample). We do [this testing] in conjunction with public health surveillance to identify things that could make people sick. Current testing utilize just a small portion of genetic code for known pathogens (like flu or Strep). Our tests use the whole genetic code. We query against a database that tells us what pathogen is in the sample so no foreknowledge is necessary. We have an analysis enclave that utilizes terabytes of RAM so that we can actually query databases for all the A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s that come out of this sequence. This way, we can try to make sense of the data.
What are the various applications of your work?
Applications include public health and surveillance for pathogen detection. But, we as humans also have genetic code so we also have a precision medicine focus area. We try to use genetics as a tool to potentially help train people better and mitigate issues that they may have in the field, such as hypoxia and altitude issues. Various studies look at particular genetic codes that makes individuals susceptible to certain conditions. We would like to know this type of information beforehand to avoid putting our Airmen at risk.
What is the most exciting aspect of your field?
This is a brand new field, and a tremendous amount of data is coming out of it. We're really trying to leverage what a lot of people are doing and seeing what can work best for our Airmen. I think that this research will be something that initiates a new revolution of how we use our genetic code to be the best person we can be. It's been thought of for a long time in medicine that we all are very unique as far as genetic make-up, and that we react differently to stimuli, outside chemicals and medicine accordingly. It’s nice to be able to marry these two [considerations] together and actually do medicine smarter, not harder.
This field is also exploding as far as gene editing, which involves DNA modification. I think bio is the new nuclear, and it's going to be the biggest threat that we have in our military and in our population. So trying to protect us from that is probably the most important thing in my mind that we have to address in this field.
What’s the most exciting project that you’ve worked?
Since I'm a microbiologist, I'm partial to anything that involves virus hunting, where we try to identify what's causing a problem. A couple of years ago, we participated in a Department of Defense (DoD) challenge (along with other labs). We identified 20 unknowns, and we answered every one correctly. It was exciting just to prove that we could test samples and provide answers. To me, that's the coolest thing we do here.
Why did you choose this particular field?
I'm fascinated with pandemics, epidemics and microscopic organisms that could potentially kill [people]. For example, the Spanish Flu, Ebola and viruses that could knock out a population. I’m interested in studying how we can protect ourselves from those threats.
How do you influence the field of genomics as a leader?
As a leader, I make contacts with people at the MAJCOMS and ask what do you need? What are your gaps? Then, I bring that information back and design a research program with it. Bridging that gap and interacting with senior leadership is important. So is talking with people who are actually in the field, so it can be something that is helpful to the end users. Being that liaison between the two is what I’ve attempted to accomplish in my current role.
(Note: MAJCOM is short for Major Command. These are leading organizational units in the U.S. Air Force.)
Was there a pivotal moment in your career as a scientist?
When the DoD approached me about a position and said, we need you to look at assays and other things we can use for diagnostics at the research level. While I originally wanted to work at a clinical lab, I found that those opportunities were extremely limited. I had never considered a career [working for the DoD], but having my hand on the latest technology and looking at how it could be transitioned, has been very rewarding.
What motivates you?
My team and their genuine excitement for science motivates me. I have a great group that comes to work very excited about what they do. They find new discoveries and they come to me saying, look what I found, what do you think of this? They are continuously excited. We always say, get your geek on, since we get “geeked out” [excited] about a lot of science stuff. Their enthusiasm motivates me to work to ensure they are successful.
At the same time, I’m motivated by our military. I’ve seen the sacrifices they make for our country, and I want to protect them. Every time I think they are in danger or sick or under threat and there’s something I can do,that’s what motivates me to get answers.
What are your hopes for the future?
[Genomics] is blowing up in a very interesting way. I think the gene is going to be a very interesting new frontier. It’s a force to be reckoned with just like the atom and the byte. There’s a lot of things we can do in the genetics field. We are going to have to figure out and identify the best way to use it.
There are also people trying to edit and change DNA, to potentially help cure disorders or diseases. But, anything used for good can also be used for evil. I’m cautiously optimistic that we [as a society] won’t be going down that path, but we always have to prepare for the worst case scenario. We know that the technology is out there and we should embrace it, but also, prepare for people doing silly things with it. For example, computer viruses are a potential downfall, but they don’t negate the numerous applications and benefits. Genetics is similar. We need to accept it and make sure that we use it to the best of our abilities.
What advice would you give to students?
Keep asking questions. Keep finding people who will talk to you about science. When I was a Girl Scout leader, I would always ask my troop about their interests. When they said science, I would arrange for them to meet people in the field who would show them robotics, computers, etc. I thought that was important to keep their interest in science. I am a very big proponent of mentoring.
What advice would you give to other scientists?
If someone comes to you interested in science, then you as a scientist should embrace that curiosity. If we can do that as AFRL and if we can do that as individuals, then we can help close that gap [of more jobs than STEM-trained workers]. I can't speak for the AFRL enterprise, but what I can do and what all scientists can do, is talk to kids who are interested in science. Do the science fairs, go to the boy scouts and girl scouts meetings, go to the individual classrooms and try to get kids ”geeked out” [excited] about science.
Did you have a mentor?
Yes, but I never really had anyone tell me what to do. I was more encouraged to explore my natural curiosity. They let me make my own decisions, and they offered me a safe place to try out different paths.
How will genomics influence future generations?
I think [genomics] is something that's going to be inherent, and we will depend on that data, just like we depend on computers. We are going to use genetic code for many things, but it's going to take some time to get to that point. It's kind of inevitable that the gene is going to be the new frontier, something that we are going to invest a lot of time and energy in to understand.
What has been your experience as a woman in Science, Technology. Engineering and Math (STEM)?
I don't feel blatant disregard because I'm a woman, but sometimes it's subtle though. I think it's just subconsciously done, and we do need to change this dynamic. I don't think people say [outright] well, we're not going to let a woman do that. I think we're past that, but still subconsciously, some [people] don't think women can be ranked as high as men. Perhaps [we can change this dynamic] by having more open conversations. I think [women] are breaking ground, slowly but surely.
Someone once asked me at a conference, how do you pick a good mentor who will support you raising a family and pursuing your career? I replied that, you just have to decide what you want out of life (a family for example), focus on the path, and then do it. Support and champion for yourself and [those around you] will fall in line. In the end, you just decide to focus on what is important to you and follow your own path that makes you happy.
I've never had a problem with being a mother and a scientist. No one has ever made me feel bad for taking maternity leave. [My colleagues] have been supportive of me. They wanted to see me to succeed, and understood that family was important to me. I've been very fortunate and I feel fortunate to be in this career and do what I do. I really enjoy working for our military.
What was the best part of the HENAAC Conference?
It was nice to go to an event that celebrated people who give back to the community. When we recognize good deeds, then this encourages us all to think and act in positive ways. During the conference, I heard stories about people doing amazing things. It’s important that we feel empowered to do more, reach out and bring in that next generation of STEM professionals.
After learning about their mission and what it is GMiS does, I was amazed. It's really impressive just to see all their energy, dedication and love of science. The countless hours that they dedicate [to their cause] is inspirational. They truly get the message out and encourage kids to pursue opportunities in STEM.
This content was provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory as part of a promotional digital content program.