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Spotlight on Students: Amanda Bares

  • Affiliation: BME

For Amanda Bares’ first summer job after high school she cleaned laser components at the company where her father worked as an electrical engineer. Now, as a Ph.D. student in Cornell’s Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering (BME), Bares is building her own technologically advanced piece of scientific equipment. Her hyperspectral multiphoton microscope is based on the pioneering work of Cornell professor Watt Webb in 1990.

Webb’s device allowed researchers to collect high resolution images of living cells in vivo. Existing multiphoton microscopes are in wide use and have been especially valuable in the observation of neural networks, microvasculature, and developmental stages in living embryos. However, they are also limited in their spectral resolution, which constrains the number of cell types that can be identified in a single series of images.

Bares’ device will allow multiphoton microscopes to differentiate multiple cell types simultaneously, with each cell type marked a unique color. “One possible use for the hyperspectral multiphoton microscope I’ve developed is in the pharmaceutical industry,” says Bares during a recent conversation in the Synapsis Café on Cornell’s Ithaca campus. “It will allow researchers to see exactly where in a cell drugs attach. And that is just one possibility--there are so many others.”

Bares, who is one of six recipients in the inaugural class of Commercialization Fellowships started at Cornell Engineering in 2016, has been looking closely at what those other possibilities might be. “It has been clear to me for three or four years now that I am headed for industry,” says Bares. “My advisor, Chris Schaffer, (associate professor in the Meinig School), steered me toward the Commercialization Fellowship because he knows I want to design and build instruments and he thought it could be a great way for me to learn more about the industry.”

Her term as a Commercialization Fellow began with an intense two-week introduction to the scientific process behind the decision to launch (or not to launch) a startup. “Before those two weeks, I hadn’t really considered that there was a systematic way to approach the whole question,” says Bares. The next step was an intense period of “discovery,” when Bares did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions of actual potential customers to find out if her idea for a hyperspectral multiphoton microscope had merit and would address an actual need in the market.

When Bares heard that she had been accepted into the program, she had to think long and hard about whether to take it. To do it right would mean putting her research on hold for six months. “The whole idea of the Commercialization Fellowship is not necessarily to start a company,” says Bares. “There was not any pressure to do that. It’s really all about the information you gather, the skills you learn, and the connections you make. This has been one of the most valuable parts of my doctoral program. Looking in the rearview mirror now, it was totally worth it.”

Bares earned her undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman. “I knew I liked biology, but to me engineering was the way in. I chose electrical because it was both familiar and challenging,” says Bares. “MSU didn’t offer biomedical engineering—I didn’t even know it was a thing until I came across it on Wikipedia as a sophomore. I petitioned right away to replace some prerequisites with Anatomy and Physiology courses so I could edge my way over into biology.” At that point, Bares assumed she would get her undergraduate degree and then land a job. This assumption changed when she went to a professor’s office to pick up a final exam and, while there, the professor offered Bares an undergraduate research position. That experience helped her decide to go to grad school for her doctorate.

“My advisor and mentors didn’t quite know what to do with me,” says Bares with a smile. “I was googling ‘best BME schools’ just to get a search started. Then I went to a work party at my Dad’s job and a sales guy told me about this professor at Cornell named Chris Schaffer and some of the work he was doing. I looked into Cornell and now I am in my sixth year here. Ithaca reminds me of an eastern Bozeman and Cornell is so collaborative. I have been very happy here.”

Bares is not sure what comes next for her. It might be an instrument development position in industry or it might be a post-doc. In either case, she feels well-prepared. “From my work in the Schaffer-Nishimura lab I have a great technical background and during my Commercialization Fellowship I developed a real network of connections in the field, so I feel like I will have some good options.”

When Bares is not working on her hyperspectral multiphoton microscope, she plays the guitar and the piano, and she can also be found on the trails around Ithaca with her mini husky and her retired racing greyhound.


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