Kiana Aran, winner of the Scientific Achievement award at the 2021 Nature Awards for Inspiring Women in Science on her work advancing discovery by making the most of transdisciplinary collaboration and breaking down silos between industry and academia.
As scientists, we all know what it takes to become deep experts in our fields - mastering the nuances and exceptions of what we study. Though many of us hope that the research we do will go on to have meaningful influence and be useful to the average person, the path to achieving this impact is not always easily understood.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalytic force, changing the way that many scientists view and approach their work. Over the past two years, we have seen how science can respond quickly and decisively in a crisis by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders (researchers, policy makers, scientists, funders, and government agencies) to work collaboratively across disciplines and towards common, shared goals.
Finding ways to link science directly to real world challenges and collaborating with great minds to find solutions has enabled me to become a better professor, researcher, and a biotech leader. In striving for my lab work and pioneering approaches to have broader impact, I seek to always create value in what I am doing and to build bridges between academia and industry - going beyond grants, publications, and “tech transfer” to others.
A good example of this transdisciplinary collaboration has been my work on the CRISPR-Chip – a CRISPR-powered graphene transistor that combined three Nobel-prize winning revolutionary technologies, CRISPR, graphene and transistors, that performed DNA detection with single base pair resolution without the need for sample amplification. The possible applications of the CRISPR-Chip range from faster and more accurate diagnostics to safer gene editing to food safety to combating disease to environmental monitoring, and beyond. Just getting to an initial proof of concept publication in 2019 required my research laboratory to master and explore an intimidating set of very competitive disciplines from semiconductor chip design to molecular biology and signal processing. This was very challenging so when I was introduced to Nanomedical Diagnostics, a startup focusing on mass production of graphene transistors, I jumped at the chance for collaboration as it could help me skip years of work creating my own custom chip design, readout electronics, and data analysis. I met with Nanomedical founders Brett Goldsmith and Ross Bundy and convinced them that I could generate interest in their chips by demonstrating they could work with CRISPR; they sent me chips and let me borrow reader hardware to support my research. This allowed me to push forward with the part I was most passionate about: integrating CRISPR with electronics. My ultimate goal was to demonstrate that “biology” is a technology by showing that CRISPR could be integrated as a module or a layer in a semiconductor chip to harness its DNA searching capability. The publication of this work on the cover of Nature BME in 2019 led to many organizations and research group from various disciplines reaching out to us for potential collaborations and utilization of CRISPR-chip technology.
The involved work of inventing the CRISPR-Chip led me to team up with a tech entrepreneur and a leader in genomic industry Michael Heltzen to form a biotech company called Nanosens Innovations. In October 2019, Nanosens merged with Nanomedical and became Cardea Bio to enable CRISPR-Chip product lines to be developed quickly and at scale – thus expanding the market reach and its potential impact in various industries.
I could have stopped my CRISPR-Chip involvement at the merger, and I could have signed a licensing agreement to leave the commercial scientists to their work of duplicating and optimizing assays, but with the support of my academic institution and Cardea bio, I made the decision to continue an active engagement with Cardea bio and it was the best thing that I have done for my career as an entrepreneurial academic scientist and for the development of the technology. Today while continuing my full-time position as a professor– I serve as the chief scientific officer at Cardea bio where I lead the development of multiomics molecular assays that could be integrated with electronic chips. More recently a new startup, CRISPR QC Inc, was formed leveraging the CRISPR-chip technology for a range of quality control services for CRISPR gene editing where I am also involved a s board member. At my academic lab I continue the expansion of this technology as well as its applications by collaborating with other academic institution and industrial partners with support from government including US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF).
Every day I speak with various scientists and biotech companies within the constellation of organizations and stakeholders working on turning my research into products. The challenges faced at every step of developing something new are far more interesting than I could have imagined. By collaborating and sharing across disciplines, we work together to iterate on finding new solutions to difficult questions around our research and technology. While our priorities and approaches are not always the same, working with a large, diverse, and interdisciplinary team on projects with real-world impact is inspiring.
In science, we often think of “interdisciplinary” as a protein scientist working with a molecular biologist. In my current work, I get to engage deeply with scientists, engineers, manufacturing experts, business developers, and prodigies of organizational leadership – and this is the future I envision for all science. Breaking down silos between academia, industry and government has given me hope and it has provided numerous opportunities for learning, creativity, and innovation with my colleagues and students. Moreover, it has helped me to understand how to make a better and more impactful difference in the world with my research.
Find out more about Kiana’s work and the Nature Awards for Inspiring Women in Science, which celebrate and support the achievements of women in science, and of all those who work to encourage girls and young women to engage with STEM subjects and who work to support women to stay in STEM careers around the world.
Kiana Aran is a biomedical entrepreneur as well as a researcher, and Associate Professor of Medical Diagnostics and Therapeutics at Keck Graduate Institute, a member of the Claremont Colleges and the Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Cardea Bio. Her field of research focuses on designing novel biosensing platforms and using 2D nanomaterials for early disease diagnosis, as well as utilizing biology as tech elements for a variety of biosensing applications.