Joseph DeSimone: Bringing Kindness and Mentorship Into STEM

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient says diversity of perspectives, problem-solving, and interdisciplinary collaboration drive innovation.

Think about the characteristics that make for a great scientist or innovator. You might be thinking about things like intelligence, determination, attention to detail, or extraordinary mathematical skills. But how about things like kindness, collaboration, or a solid foundation from a liberal arts education?

According to Dr. Joseph DeSimone, it’s not all about test scores and conducting experiments in the lab. In order to launch and sustain a successful career in science and technology, one needs to live at the intersection of science and humanities.

“Our sport is a contact sport, and it involves people,” Dr. DeSimone said. “When you’re focused on purpose and you’re focused on improving the health and well-being of society... you can make a difference in the world.”

Dr. DeSimone, a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, shows how kindness, diversity, and inclusion play a role in the advancement of scientific developments. It’s something he first noticed when he joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1990, and continues to carry forward in his work today with students.

"Their ideas are very different and contribute a lot to the fabric of the emerging idea...That breadth of experience, that breadth of disciplines, that breadth of cultural differences drives innovation. Diversity is a fundamental tenet of innovation.”

In fact, Dr. DeSimone focuses on mentorship with students specifically to help advance diversity in the chemistry workforce, and was awarded the AAAS Mentor Award in 2010 in recognition of his efforts. As a first generation college student himself, Dr. DeSimone said he recognizes the importance of bringing together a diverse team of individuals, “recognizing that we learn the most from those that we have the least in common with.”

“You start realizing that the kid on your team that maybe grew up with not much money [has] ideas driven by that experience,” he said. “You have somebody else that grew up with a lot of money and their ideas are driven by that experience. Their ideas are very different and contribute a lot to the fabric of the emerging idea. You start to realize that that breadth of experience, that breadth of disciplines, that breadth of cultural differences drives innovation. Diversity is a fundamental tenet of innovation.”

In a way, Dr. DeSimone experienced that diversity firsthand when he first began working in nanomedicine, the application of tailored nanotechnology in a healthcare setting. With the help of nanotechnology, scientists have been able to develop new ways to study, diagnose, treat, and prevent certain medical conditions using nano-sized particles specifically designed to seek out and stop cells harming the body.

Dr. DeSimone first branched out into the nanomedicine field through a connection at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine who was interested in gene therapy, a technique that uses genes to treat certain conditions.

“For most of my career I was not doing anything with medicine,” he said. His colleague, Rudy Juliano, was running into issues delivering particular genetic materials and reached out to Dr. DeSimone – an expert in polymer science – because others in the field were using polymers as a delivery method.

Together, the two developed a more sophisticated method called Particle Replication in Non-wetting Templates, or PRINT. The PRINT technology allows researchers to control the size, shape and overall composition of the nanoparticles used.

This collaboration spawned a new venture for Dr. DeSimone – Liquidia Technologies – a company built around his work in nanomedicine, focusing on three areas: developing nanoparticles used in inhalable therapeutics and vaccines, and nanoparticles that could be used to treat cancer.

Similarly, Dr. DeSimone said he started down the path toward beginning another company – Carbon – when a postdoctoral student approached him about applications of his work in 3D printing. After researching existing patents and examining the methods other companies were using to print, the two decided to move in a different direction. Rather than printing layer by layer, they would print continuously, using liquids followed by light to solidify the imaging. All of this, he said, was nailed down within the span of a few afternoons.

“I’m a big believer that strategy is all about being different – and that drove our thinking,” he said. “Being different alone isn’t good enough, but being different and better turned out to be the clincher.”

Through his career experiences over the years, Dr. DeSimone is living proof that diversity, collaboration, and kindness pay off. Leaders in science and technology have time and again cited his creativity, adaptability, and ability to collaborate as reasons why his work stands out. Earlier this fall, Dr. DeSimone was given the Heinz Award in Technology, the Economy and Employment, one of several awards established in 1993 in memory of former Sen. John Heinz, who among other things had a passion for the work driving America’s economic vitality.

“Dr. DeSimone’s achievements as a polymer scientist and entrepreneur leading to singular breakthroughs in areas such as 3D printing, nanomedicine and green chemistry are many, and the positive effects on how we live, create, work and treat our planet are only just beginning to be seen,” said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. She went on to say that Dr. DeSimone was honored “not only for these accomplishments, but also for his ability to work across the traditional boundaries of scientific discipline, and for taking knowledge gained out of the laboratory and into the places where it can have a positive impact.”

And as early as 2008, when Dr. DeSimone received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, awarded to those dedicated to “improving our world through technological innovation,” his interdisciplinary nature was praised.

"The ability to cross-germinate ideas from different areas to produce innovative solutions is invaluable to an inventor," said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "[Dr.] DeSimone's ability to creatively fuse concepts across disciplines, coupled with his dedication to fostering the inventive spirit, uniquely position him to improve our world through invention and innovation."

And according to DeSimone, in order to be successful in the future, today’s students need to be “multi-lingual”-- able to communicate across different disciplines and comfortable with rapidly advancing technologies that are changing the way scientists think about their fields.

“It takes real depth of understanding in multiple places to make a difference today and that’s where I’m most excited,” he said. “[The] convergence of disciplines coming together is really amazing.”

Dr. DeSimone spoke at the NSTMF's event An Evening With Joseph DeSimone at the Stanford Faculty Club on November 9th.