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Steering Her Own Course

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Robin Stears is safe enough when she’s working her magic with microarrays. Just don’t get between her and an obstinate sea urchin.

 

By Meredith W. Salisbury

 

She certainly didn’t set out to save a struggling reagents company, but in her microarray-induced frustration, Robin Stears couldn’t help it. A postdoc at a Harvard Medical School lab when most people hadn’t yet heard of microarrays, she had been working with the first available arraying instruments — and was getting little useful data out of them. So at a trade show she picked up a product called a dendrimer, or a “ball of oligonucleotides,” she says. Genisphere, a small company based in New Jersey, made dendrimers for researchers to use to probe blots, but Stears had another idea: she thought that, with the right capture sequence attached, the cluster of oligos could be adapted as “a very powerful detection technology” that would improve signal intensity in microarrays.

She was right. Happily working on her own with the dendrimers, she got a call one day from a Genisphere sales rep to see how she liked the product. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m using it in a totally different application.’ Within three minutes of hanging up with her, I got a call from her senior scientist wanting to know how we were using it and how it was working.” Stears, now 37 and working at TeleChem/ArrayIt, says Genisphere was just three months shy of bankruptcy.

Throughout the summer of 1999, Stears worked extensively with the Genisphere scientists, helping them perfect the dendrimer for microarray detection. “I have to credit her tremendously with really pushing the boundaries of how to use these types of materials,” says Jim Kadushin, manager of operations at Genisphere. “Frankly, we were a little skeptical that it could work with microarrays. She presented such convincing arguments and convincing data that she utterly won us over.”

For Stears, it was a struggle to elicit better data from an emerging, uncooperative technology. For Genisphere, it was everything. The company is now prosperous, and Kadushin says 90 percent of its sales go to microarray users.

Wild Horses Didn’t Keep Her Away

Stears was, perhaps, an unlikely candidate for microarray maven. She began as a chemistry major in college, thanks to inspired science classes in high school. But the interest wasn’t long-term: “I was one of the many casualties of organic chemistry,” she laughs. Another prof drew her into biology, and it stuck. “[But] I didn’t exactly know where I wanted to go from there,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a high school teacher, and I didn’t know what the options were beyond that.”

Confusing the issue further was a calling to continue her lifelong avocation of horseback riding. Raised in rural eastern Long Island, NY — “It was potato fields out there,” Stears recalls — the daughter of a horsewoman, Stears began riding by the time she was five and broke her first horse, “a spunky gray thoroughbred” named Charlie, at 13. She rode competitively, particularly in the Olympic sport of dressage, an intensive type of training and showing that “has been called ballet on horseback,” Stears explains. Smack in the middle of college, she was chosen to represent the US in championships. She did take a year off to continue the sport, but mostly kept tight hours at school. Stears won a team silver medal in an international championship in 1986 and trained with the coach of the US Olympic team.

Stears worked to put herself through college at SUNY Stony Brook, often giving riding and dressage lessons. It was through that work that she met SUNY biology professor Barbara Panessa-Warren. “When she came into the lab she would always tinker and look at everything,” recalls Panessa-Warren, who encouraged Stears, still an undergrad, to work in the lab and eventually to submit a paper for a conference. The paper was accepted. “She had the chutzpah to wear a red satin suit when she presented [it],” the professor says. “That’s someone that really has a great deal of not just courage [but] the depth to do something that far beyond their age.” Stears took to research “like a duck to water,” according to Panessa-Warren, and went on to complete her PhD in cellular and developmental biology.

“Science sometimes presents opportunities to do adventurous things,” Stears says. “I love doing adventurous things.” When her zeal for studying a receptor protein in sea urchins opened the door for a chance to go to Antarctica in the summer of 1996, she leapt for it. She and an international team of some 30 people headed off for more than a month to McMurdo Station, a veritable metropolis of 1,000 summer residents (100 in winter) on the icy continent. “I’d go back in a second,” she says genuinely.

But that doesn’t make her a creature of the cold. After her stint in Antarctica, Stears continued her sea urchin studies with a fellowship that began in Hawaii. “I desperately needed to warm up,” she jokes. “Part of my job there was to rent a kayak once or twice a month and go to a little island off Oahu to go diving for sea urchins all day.” A good day would yield 100 of the critters, which weren’t exactly eager for a ride in Stears’ kayak. Diving for them meant going down with hardware: a hammer and screwdriver to “whack them off the rock,” she says.

Array Pioneer

Her fellowship led her back to Harvard, and the heat-shock protein she’d been studying all along led her to a postdoc position at Steve Gullans’ lab. “He was able to obtain the beta unit of the first commercially available robotic arrayer from Cartesian, and the first confocal laser scanner from GSI,” Stears says. “He got these two very important pieces of capital equipment and put me in charge of making them work.”

“Every time she looked she found another bug [in the robotics],” recalls Gullans. Left to her own devices, Stears developed criteria for growing clones and protocols to select them, worked out high-throughput PCR for the process, created unique buffers for suspension, and came up with her own arraying procedure. “She did unbelievably well in a field that had enormous, enormous problems,” Gullans says.

It was, as Stears puts it, “just at the beginning of the microarray explosion.” Her experience at Gullans’ lab — and her track record in getting Genisphere’s technology to work for arrays — earned her an offer to head up the Affymetrix chips group at the Aventis genomics center in Cambridge, Mass. She enjoyed learning the business side of things, but found that she preferred the more academic feel she was used to. When Paul Haje, director of business development at TeleChem/ArrayIt, called to recruit her to start a custom array division, the temptation was too much to pass up. TeleChem’s environment — a small company where Stears is heavily involved in research — was what she’d been looking for. By mid-2001 she packed up and headed for Santa Cruz, Calif., as the company’s director of microarray technology.

The less formal atmosphere (not to mention the nearby beaches and mountains) suits Stears, who’s thinking about finding a way to get back into sea urchin research at TeleChem and admits freely that she’s “been angling for a way to go back to Antarctica.”

The proud new homeowner has also begun shopping around for a horse, with an eye to getting back into dressage. The sport is so intensive, though, that Stears jokingly worries that coworkers will notice if she’s never in the office because of all the training. “I’m hoping to cut back from [my] 14-hour days before I get the horse so it won’t be such an obvious transition,” she laughs.