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Feb. 11, 2011 11:00 am

Deb Crawford, Drexel Vice Provost for Research on evaluating cells a thousand times smaller than a human hair and more: Q&A

The engineer-by-training spent 20 years at the venerable National Science Foundation and is here to push forward Drexel's reputation as a serious research institution.

Debbie Crawford isn’t from around here.

The native of Glasgow, Scotland moved from Alexandria, VA to take the Vice Provost for Research gig at Drexel University in September and is awash in a continued University City renaissance that most Philadelphians from even five years ago wouldn’t recognize.

The engineer-by-training spent 20 years at the venerable National Science Foundation and is here to push forward Drexel’s reputation as a serious research institution.

“The tipping point for that is going from the individual cottage industry notion of research with deep expertise to a place where we are bringing the researcher across a variety of other fields to create a sum greater than the parts that can attack bigger challenges,” Crawford tells Technically Philly , her accent aglow. “So it’s taking new technologies and bringing together the creative arts and engineering or whoever else and pull them in that sandbox to have the largest impact possible.”

Now living in Center City, Crawford says she brings from NSF “an understanding of the topic barriers in these large projects.”

Below, Crawford talks about why Drexel was the right choice, the coolest research happening at the university right now and more.

As always, edited for length and clarity.

Why leave NSF for Drexel?

I really believe this is a unique college with unique skills, and I’m interested by institutions stepping up to the next level. Drexel has gone through tremendous growth, both in revenue and new colleges and schools. I sensed here an opportunity to do something new. Instead of tweaking, I feel like the institution is at a tipping point. The strength is the small teams of investigation, research and activites, so now we’re ready and have enough core competency to move up to the multi-disciplinary and group efforts that create institutional impact… I want to be a part there.

What is the coolest thing you’re around at work?

A Drexel University team of engineers, scientists and biologists have developed a carbon nanotube-based device for probing single living cells without damaging them.

“A Drexel University team of engineers, scientists and biologists have developed a carbon nanotube-based device for probing single living cells without damaging them.”

What will that do?

This technique will allow experts to identify diseases in their early stage and advance drug discovery. The research led by Dr. Yury Gogotsi, professor of materials science and engineering and director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute, and Dr. Gary Friedman, professor of electrical engineering, uses the nanotube-based device, known as a cellular endoscope, to evaluate cells about a thousand times smaller than a human hair.

The cellular endoscope interrogates the intracellular environment of living cells, delivers fluorescent quantum dots and analyzes molecules inside a cell without the cell recognizing the needle’s presence. Drexel’s W. M. Keck Institute for Attofluidic Probes now manufactures the smallest endoscopes ever created, with endoscopes providing a potentially transformative technology for studying the fundamentals of single living cells and more broadly, for cell biology.

What problem does that solve?

Today, cell biologists usually destroy a large number of cells to extract cellular components and biological molecules needed for identifying diseases and analyzing effects of new drugs, or to achieve a better understanding of how the cell functions. Glass pipettes are widely used to inject material into cells. The pipettes cause too much damage to remain within the cell for a long time and are not designed to report information in the form of optical or electrical signals from within the cell. The Drexel research team had an idea for a minimally invasive cellular probe, the tip of which could remain within the cell for a long time while reporting important information in the form of optical and electrical signals and transferring tiny amounts of material to and from the cell. This probe is similar to an endoscope employed by doctors to perform minimally invasive operations inside human patients, only much smaller.

The Drexel team is funded by the Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team National Science Foundation grant and the W. M. Keck Foundation.

How are you finding University City?

First, I have visited most of the innovation hubs of the country — Boston, San Diego, Silicon Valley, the I-4 corridor in Florida — and I have been flabbergasted by Philadelphia, with just the number of institutions that are making research contributions. The connectedness in this region is amazing. Everyone seems to know everyone else. People find it compelling and never leave. It’s nothing like Washington D.C., a city of transients.

This is a region of people who come and they stay and they’re excited by so many institutions of higher education and so many teaching hospitals and vibrant pharma and investors and incubators . There is huge potential here, some of which is probably untapped. I have been amazed by the connectedness and networking.

The University City Science Corridor along Market Street, well, that is a huge asset for the region. One of the things we [at Drexel] were talking about was doing an asset mapping to connect people with like minded individuals and organizations. The faculty understand where we have competencies. That’s one of the important things we have to do regionally, have a better understanding of everything we currently already have. We have a huge number of possibilities here, like all the students and the growing propensity for staying in the region.

I’ve been very excited and somewhat surprised at the level of activity here.

How can we do better of getting the country or the world to recognize Philly’s community of research and innovation and knowledge?

It’s being involved in the right conversations and many of our regional partners are, but it’s getting involved there to establish national priorities. I think there’s opportunity to do more of that. If you look at the conversations in Washington around innovation and innovation policies — things that impact economic growth — we need to make sure that we’re sharing through hard work and show what we’ve learned and growth. We need to share that on a national level.

Is Philadelphia engaged in those conversations enough in city and state government, well, there should be clear champions for innovaiton in the city and the state. I don’t think it needs to be one champion, but we should know and look to them.

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Christopher Wink

Christopher Wink is a cofounder and Editorial Director of Technical.ly, the local technology news network. Previously, Wink worked for a homeless advocacy nonprofit and was a freelance reporter for a variety of publications. He writes regularly about news innovation and best business practices on his personal blog here. The bicycle commuter loves cities, urban politics and squabbling about neighborhood boundaries.

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