Bioeconomy Distinguished Lecture Series

December 16, 2021 11:00 AM  to 
December 16, 2021 1:00 PM

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NSF invests in fundamental research to support biotechnology and advance the U.S. bioeconomy across the sciences and engineering. 

Presented by NSF's Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee and NSF Directorates, this distinguished lecture series will bring in individual speakers and panels representing the science and technology funded by a Directorate every month.  Speakers will present on research and broader impacts in areas associated with biotechnology and the bioeconomy that are of interest broadly across the foundation.

All sessions will begin at 11 a.m. Eastern. Individual lectures will run until 12 noon, including question and answer, and panel sessions will run until 1:00 p.m. All sessions will be conducted virtually; viewing links for those lectures that do not have them listed below will be provided shortly.

Thursday, December 16, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and SBE)
Laurel Smith-Doerr, PhD (University of Massachusetts-Amherst); Jason Owen-Smith, PhD (University of Michigan); and Ben Hurlbut, PhD (Arizona State University) 

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Abstracts for this Session

Dr. Laura Smith-Doerr Abstract
What are the organizational contexts that allow equitable collaboration among knowledge workers and thus innovative outcomes? Social science literature has had different predictions about the role of bureaucratic organizations and rules. In some settings it appears hierarchy and rules can provide a platform for equity (think racial integration in the U.S. Army), while in others, the structural secrecy and power differentials in tall hierarchies leads to stark inequalities (think sexual harassment in the film industry).

This presentation of research in bioeconomy contexts compares gender equity in more hierarchical settings (academia, large pharma) to less hierarchical, flatter organizations (biotech firms). Smith-Doerr’s research found that the interorganizational collaboration in early biotech firms fostered greater equity. Women life scientists were nearly eight times more likely to be leading science units in biotech than in academia or large pharma. In addition, while men were much more likely to patent than women in the hierarchical settings, the gender gap in patenting disappeared in these biotech firms.

Smith-Doerr’s research uncovered three reasons why these networked, flatter biotech firms seemed to foster gender equity: 1) they were more transparent in identifying who contributed to discoveries, collaboration between organizations led to more women being publicly credited for their innovations; 2) collective rewards to teams for achievements rather than ‘winner take all’ approaches typical of academic science leads to shared credit that includes more women; and finally 3) flexibility in project based work means women are able to steer clear of bad collaborators rather than being stuck under a boss in a hierarchy.

This short presentation will conclude with discussion of a) how these lessons for fostering equity might translate to larger organizations (even bureaucratic hierarchies like academia), and b) from Smith-Doerr’s current work with the UMass ADVANCE team, how to sustain equity gains during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Jason Owen-Smith Abstract
The bioeconomy, like other knowledge intensive sectors, is defined by a fast moving scientific and technical frontier where necessary information and skills are rarely housed in a single organization. Broadly dispersed and quickly changing knowledge coupled with costly and risky innovation pipelines require complicated collaborative styles of “network organization” that often span academia, large and small firms, non-profits, government agencies and, ultimately, health care providers.

Understanding, explaining, and improving the workings and outputs of the bioeconomy thus poses substantial challenges. Chief among them is the need for reliable, up to date data, supporting infrastructure to ensure its protection, accessibility, and use, and a broad community of researchers equipped to use both to conduct policy-relevant research. Transaction level administrative data linked to a variety of other sources of information offer one promising route to fulfill this need.

This talk introduces a new data infrastructure, the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science (IRIS), that integrates data from more than 50 restricted and open access sources to support research and reporting on the dynamics, outputs, social and economic impact of research. In addition to providing a number of concrete examples of analyses that can shed new light on the bioeconomy, Owen-Smith proposes potential extensions to better address its particular needs.

Dr. J. Benjamin Hurlbut Abstract
The last half century has seen extraordinary advances in engineering life. A decade ago, the Obama administration saw in them the seeds of “a vibrant bioeconomy with vast societal benefit.”  If this vision is to be realized, innovation agendas cannot simply presume to know what counts as beneficial. Instead, they must be calibrated to public judgments about what serves the collective good. Since the 1970s, ethics has become a catch-all category for questions about how to make these judgments, generating new forms of professional expertise and institutional processes to address them. However, caught between scientific autonomy on the one hand, and plural public values on the other, bioethics tends to mediate between science and society by focusing narrowly on the potential social impacts and consequences of the products of emerging science and technology. But science and technology are not limited to the outputs they produce. They are social enterprises that powerfully shape ideas of progress and public good. The bioeconomy will enshrine visions of societal problems, solutions, and benefits—visions of what makes for good lives and societies—in the technologies it generates. To be a source of societal benefit, bioeconomy innovation must be guided by expansive modes of ethical deliberation that ensure that those visions are democratically grounded. This talk will explore some challenges and possibilities for building capacity for a more expansive ethics.   

Further lectures to be announced


Past Lectures:

Thursday, December 3, 2020 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. EST
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and CISE)
Mark Bathe, PhD (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Professor, Department of Biological Engineering
Co-Chair, MIT New Engineering Education Transformation

View the lecture on YouTube:

A Tale of 2 Strands: From Genomes to Origami, Vaccines, Data Storage, and Back
Society faces innumerable grand challenges in the 21st Century, ranging from uncontrolled pathogenic outbreaks to exponentially growing data and computational needs that exceed the world’s supply of silicon, to next-generation sensing requirements for safe autonomous vehicle navigation and health monitoring. As scientists explore diverse material substrates to help address these challenges, DNA has emerged as a powerful biological medium due to its unique ability to fabricate arbitrary, virus-like structures at the nanometer-scale, store information at a density that vastly exceeds even flash memory, perform logic-based sensing and computing, as well as organize photonic elements to mimic quantum processes in photosynthetic bacteria and plants. In this presentation Bathe shared his work in several of these areas, with a focus on fabricating virus-like particles to rapidly screen vaccine candidates for emergent pathogens, and using DNA as a “hard-drive” with random access capabilities that could in principle operate at the yottabyte-scale for archival data.


Thursday, January 14, 2021 11 a.m. - 12 p.m. EST
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and OISE)
LaShanda Korley, PhD (University of Delaware)
Distinguished Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Associate Director, UD Center for Research in Soft Matter and Polymers (CRiSP)

View the lecture on YouTube:

Bio-inspired and Sustainable Design: Towards Functional Materials
Materials that are found in nature display a wide range of properties, including responsiveness to the environment, signal transmission, and the ability to adapt to support life. Learning from nature or biomimicry can be a powerful tool in designing, developing, and accessing the next generation of synthetic materials and systems. Supported by the NSF PIRE program, Korley discussed her Center efforts to utilize inspiration from nature to design new materials that can change toughness in response to their environment, are safer and more effective biological implants, will transmit nerve-like electrical signals, and can respond to the environment to initiate biological processes with an eye toward soft robotic applications. Via an international framework, a suite of educational and innovation activities will be described that guide the training of the next generation of global scientists and engineers in this interdisciplinary endeavor. With support from the NSF GCR and DMR, she discussed the implementation of a life cycle management framework and collaborative research to develop performance advantaged materials. Sustainability in the context of new materials design was also highlighted as a pathway for framework for broadening participation in science and engineering fields.


Thursday, March 18, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and ENG)
Lydia Contreras, PhD (University of Texas); Doug Densmore, PhD (Boston University); Julius Lucks, PhD (Northwestern University); and Jennifer Nemhauser, PhD (University of Washington)

View the lecture on YouTube:

Sowing the Seeds of Convergent Synthetic Design
Abstracts are available in the flier below


Thursday, May 13, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. EST
(Cosponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and EHR)
Panel Presentation: Linnea Fletcher, PhD (Austin Community College); Thomas Tubon, PhD (Madison Area Technical College); Russ Read (Forsyth Tech Community College)

View the lecture on YouTube:

Scoping and Educating the Dynamic Biotech Workforce
Advancing the U.S. bioeconomy will require a growing biotechnology workforce that is well educated and diverse. Located at Austin Community College in Texas and partnering with institutions of higher education, high schools, industry, and non-profits throughout the country, the InnovATEBIO National Biotechnology Education Center, an NSF-funded Advanced Technological Education Center, works with the biotech community to scope out workforce needs and address them by educating highly skilled technicians. InnovATEBIO supports a cadre of well-trained instructors and is helping to increase the number and quality of biotechnology education programs, as well as introducing a wide range of underrepresented students to biotechnology.

In this lecture, InnovATEBIO’s Principal Investigators Dr. Linnea Fletcher, Russ Read, and Dr. Thomas Tubon,  discussed their work to lead the biotechnology community to evaluate and meet workforce needs across biomanufacturing and biotech and how preparing the workforce can also increase economic development. They also highlighted unique partnerships they have established through their efforts in workforce development, including partnerships with Manufacturing USA and other federal agencies. The panel described their efforts to broaden participation in the biotechnology workforce including participation in the NSF-funded Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS) and working with industry partners to develop skills standards, improve onshore manufacturing, and increase supply chain security.


Thursday, June 10, 2021 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. EST
(Co-sponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO, and GEO)
Panel Presentation: Tullis Onstott, PhD (Princeton University); Paula Welander, PhD (Stanford University); Andrew Thurber, PhD (Oregon State University); and Kristin O’Brien, PhD (University of Alaska-Fairbanks)

View the lecture on YouTube:

Bioeconomic Applications of Extreme Earth Environments
Abstracts are available in the flier below


Thursday, September 9, 2021 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. EST

(Co-sponsored by the Bioeconomy Coordinating Committee, BIO and MPS)
Panel Presentation: Tom Muir, PhD (Princeton University); Ben Garcia, PhD (Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis); Lissa Anderson, PhD (National High Magnetic Field Laboratory); and Ping Ma, PhD (University of Georgia)

View the lecture on YouTube:

Deciphering Biological Codes: The Power of Chemical Biology, Biological Physics, Big Data, and AI
Nearly all cells comprising an individual contain the same DNA blueprint, yet humans are a complex amalgamation of ~200 different cell types of various functions. Distinctions lie in which genes are ultimately “switched ON” and translated into proteins that function in the cell — their “proteome.” Epigenetic mechanisms affect biological processes by regulating the ways in which genes are expressed, altering phenotype. By understanding these mechanisms, scientists will be able to better understand key relationships between genotype and phenotype.

Histone proteins play a pivotal role in epigenetic regulation. While there are only five families of histone proteins, their structures and functions are expanded in innumerable ways, including combinations of gene sequence variants and post-translational modifications (PTMs). Understanding these structure-function relationships requires a platform capable of unequivocally distinguishing between nearly identical protein sequences while concurrently identifying and site-localizing all PTMs. Mass spectrometry (MS) has proven essential for identification and quantitation of proteins and their PTMs. Complementing these analytical advances, great strides have also been made in the development of chemical biology approaches that allow precise installation of PTMs into chromatin for downstream biochemical studies. Together, these approaches show great promise in cracking ‘histone code’ regulation mechanisms.   

Analytical and computational technologies, such as statistical and machine learning methods, can also provide insight into biological phenomena. These methods, which rely on new mathematical theory and emerging computing paradigm, help sort through large data sets — the “data deluge” — at a rapid pace and promise to revolutionize many fields on their own and through the creation of novel biotechnologies. Combined, these novel methods could help identify key genetic signatures and mechanisms associated with a disease, leading to the innovation of new treatments.

Meeting Type

Jared Dashoff, 703-292-4523, email:
       Preferred Contact Method: Email

NSF Related Organizations
Directorate for Biological Sciences

Public Attachments
Bathe Lecture (Dec. 3) Flier
Korley Lecture (Jan. 14) Flier
March 18 Panel Flier
May 13 Panel Flier
June 10 Panel Flier
September 9 Panel Flier