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Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, CEO of Ixcela, Talks Microbiomes and Women in STEM

Posted by Sara Goodman on Jul 10, 2016

Ebbel_gray_suit_-_Copy.jpg"I think that's what makes true mentors really exceptional. They're able to guide you to learn these different things, even if they know that what you're doing isn't going to work, but they know how to inspire you. They know how to help you build confidence and they know how to help you to think the right way. Ultimately, science is not about memorizing facts. We live in a society where we can look anything up online, but how do you use that information in a way that is productive, that builds something. Those are the critical thinking skills that everyone is talking about." - Dr. Angle

Massachusetts-based innovator Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle chats with KnowAtom CEO Francis Vigeant about her work with microbiomes, and the importance of female role models, mentors, and nurturing educators to inspire more women to pursue careers in STEM.

In their conversation, transcribed below, you'll learn about:

  • What microbiomes are and what Ixcela does to help people rebalance their internal fitness
  • How one sixth grade English teacher served as the catalyst for Erika's love of science 
  • Why cultivating a learning environment where mistakes can happen is vital


 

Francis Vigeant:

Hi, and thanks for joining us for this session on the path to innovation. My name is Francis Vigeant, I'm CEO here at KnowAtom. We're located just north of Boston in Salem, Massachusetts. We're interested in the path to innovation because we're not only equipping classrooms to teach science and engineering and engage students' higher order thinking through creative, evaluative, and analytical skills--those critical thinking skills that we're all focused on--but really, as teachers we hope as a result of classroom instruction we are preparing children to participate in innovation, whether that means they're scientists and engineers or salespeople and informed consumers.

As we talk today with Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, we're going to be discovering her story about what led her to become not only a scientist and an engineer, but an entrepreneur pursuing STEM as a career.

To give you a little bit of background on Erika, she is CEO and co-founder of Ixcela. Erika Ebbel Angle received her PhD in biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University's School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2002 Erika founded Science From Scientists, an award-winning national nonprofit focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and math (which we often call STEM) attitudes and aptitudes for children ages 9-13.

She currently serves on the Massachusetts STEM Council Legislator Educational Work Group and the board of the elementary and secondary education STEM Advisory Council here in Massachusetts. She's also a member of the board of trustees and the executive committee at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts.

In 2014, the Boston Business Journal selected her as one of the 40 under 40 Business and Civic leaders who are making a major impact in their respective fields in the greater Boston area. Her accomplishments have also been recognized by the Boston Chamber of Commerce's Pinnacle Award for emerging executives in 2015. In 2013, the Boston Chamber of Commerce selected her as one of the 10 outstanding young leaders in Boston.


In 2007, she was identified as L'Oreal Paris's Woman of Worth for her work with Science from Scientists. She has been featured on Lifetime TV and NOVA Science Now on the Secret Lives of Scientists and Engineers. Erika serves as commissioner for the Massachusetts commission on the status of Women. In 2004 she was Miss Massachusetts in the Miss America Scholarship Program.

Thank you very much for joining us, Erika. I appreciate the time and your willingness to share about your path to innovation with us.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:

Thank you, Francis, for having me.

Francis Vigeant:

Jumping in here, Erika, you're co-founder of the healthcare biotech company Ixcela, focused on this idea of internal fitness. Can you tell us a bit about what Ixcela does and what this idea of internal fitness is, why is it so important?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


I'll start by just describing internal fitness and then I'll tell a little bit more about what Ixcela's business model actually is. People are actually complex systems. We believe that optimal health is the result of having a healthy gut microbiome. This company is very much centered around the theme of gut microbiome health. I can describe what that means for people who aren't aware, but when you have the correct balance of biochemistry and microbes in your body, then you are, by definition, a term that we coined, “internally fit.”


The gut microbiome is a very complex system. Basically, these are all the different bacteria, yeasts, things that live in your small intestine. Recent studies have shown that, if you have problems with your gut microbiome, you are susceptible to a variety of other potentially deleterious diseases down the road, whether they be in the neurodegenerative family, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, etc. Things like, for example, autoimmune conditions, things like leaky gut, even conditions that are as simple as acid reflux. The gut microbiome plays a very, very important role in overall health. Thus, when we coined this term "internal fitness", we thought it was apropos because, if you have poor gut microbiome health, then you're probably not particularly internally fit.


We designed a program where you take a pin prick blood sample. There's a kit that we send you. You poke your finger, take about 20 to 30 microliters of blood in a capillary and you put it on a little test kit. Then you send it in to us and then we send back a report looking at 12 different small molecules that both we and others have shown to be important to gut microbiome health. You get back your report and then we try to assist with creating a personalized program to help restore, should you have some sort of imbalance, to restore this gut microbiome health in a regimen of lifestyle changes, different supplement, et cetera. We try to assist once we know that there's a specific imbalance with whatever problem there might be.

My co-founder is actually a gentleman that I had done my PhD with; he's in his early 70s and has a pretty extensive track record in the area of metabo-wellness and small molecule research in this specific field. When we decided to found Ixcela, we said, "Hey, it would be great to create a product that could actually help people to find out if their gut microbiome is healthy and then make alterations as needed to improve their internal fitness."

Francis Vigeant:

When people have an issue with internal fitness, is that the result of lifestyle choices, is it genetics, or some combination of both?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


It's definitely a combination of both. To some extent, yes, in genetics there are some aspects of genetics that are unalterable, but there are also things that you can change that will alter specific elements of the genetics so that you're not necessarily absolutely certain to get a specific condition. Metabolomics is very much a snapshot of the current biochemical profile of your body, whereas genetics, when you think about it, genetics is further upstream. 

Otherwise, some of the metabolites and metabolomics can actually affect the genetics for specific outcomes and diseases. One of the reasons why this is actionable is because metabolome shows the exact snapshot at that second of what is going on in your body and these things are changeable, fixable.

Francis Vigeant:


The term that you use, and I may mispronounce this, metabolomics, just for folks who may not be familiar with this term, are we just talking about molecular or metabolized or part of the digestive deconstruction of molecules, so for instance, food or waste products in the body. Is that correct?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Metabomia is the study of metabolites. There are thousands of different metabolites. Anything that is basically digested and processed through the body. It can be amino acids, tyrosine, tryptophan, then you have other types of compounds, as well, that are in those- We are specifically interested in compounds that are in the tryptophan pathway. If you were so inclined, you could do a Google search and say, "Alright, what are some of the different metabolites as your body breaks down tryptophan? What happens to it?" There are a whole variety of different compounds, all of which are individual metabolites.

We're testing, at least for this test, only 12 metabolites, but, just for those who haven't heard of the term, your body has tens of thousands, probably more, different types of metabolites currently floating around in your various systems.

Francis Vigeant:


Interesting. Basically, how well your body is breaking those down or, perhaps, whether they are or are not breaking down certain materials is essentially a sign or perhaps a precursor to other conditions or perhaps create the conditions for something to become more imbalanced. Is it fair to think of a gut microbiome as almost an ecosystem of sorts?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:

 

That's right. Some of the bugs that live- bugs, I call them bugs, but they're bacteria that live in the small intestine, actually will secrete or spit out some of these metabolites into the bloodstream. Some of the compounds that we're interested in are antioxidants, so they're known to be protective. For example, if you have in your youth or even recently taken a lot of antibiotics or eaten a lot of processed foods or- there are a whole variety of ways to insult your gut microbiome.

Stress is a huge factor. Then it's possible that you might have wiped out certain families of these bacteria that, in the case of some of them, they're secreting positive, good compounds into the bloodstream and, as a result, you are at a disadvantage because now your body is exposed. You no longer have those compounds present to help fight off or prevent these diseases from occurring or these disease processes from occurring. Part of it is to identify the specific weaknesses or challenges and then help to restore the balance that you might not have currently.

Francis Vigeant:


That sounds really interesting. I know I recently did a blood test myself for Ixcela, so I'm looking forward to seeing the results and learning more about my internal fitness. I wonder, as you look back, today you have a PhD in biochemistry. You have multiple patents and trademarks and everything that's coming together in this particular venture and I'm sure others.

What, when you think back, given that most of the people listening to this discussion are K-12 educators, whether they are teachers or principals or so on, what people or experiences nudged your curiosity from those early days towards some sort of STEM career that has resulted in all of these really interesting technologies?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


It all started in the 6th grade. Interestingly enough, it was my 6th grade English teacher who got me interested. At the time, there was a class trip to Washington, DC, and my parents had said to me, "You have a choice. We can either send you to Washington with your class or we can go to Cancun during spring break. We can't afford to send you to both, but you can pick." Obviously, I'm an 11 year old kid, right, I picked Cancun. For those of us who didn't go to Washington, DC, we weren't allowed to stay home and play hooky. We had to go to school. The teacher who stayed back with us was, in fact, my 6th grade English teacher. She had us reading books like Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain and doing very simple science experiments. I loved it. I loved the books, I loved the experiments.


Then April came and family, we went to Cancun and we visited a crocodile farm. Crocodiles, when they're mortally wounded, will actually flip over onto their backs and slip into a coma and commit suicide. If you ever find yourself wrestling a crocodile, just flip it over on its back long enough and it will die. When I got back from that trip, they said, "Guess what? Science fair project time." Of course, all of the kids were saying, "What am I going to do for my science fair project?" I think with all of the reading of all of these different books and this experience at the crocodile farm I said, "Gee, I'd really like to do a science fair project where I look to see if cells commit suicide if they're infected by viruses." Don't ask me how that happened. That was just my hypothesis.


I told my teacher, "This is going to be my project." She looked at me and said, "Okay. You're probably not going to be able to do that here, but we encourage you to go and find someone to help you do it," so I made a variety of different phone calls. I pulled out- at the time, it was the Yellow Pages, right? I pulled out the yellow pages and I was looking to see what local area labs were close to where we lived. I made dozens of phone calls. Most of the people I called, of course, when you say you're an 11 year old who's looking for a mentor to do a science fair project, most of the companies were very concerned. In fact, they wanted to talk to my parents because they thought I was crazy and said, "Look, you should probably be keeping track of what your daughter is doing in the basement without you knowing about it."

 

I struck out until there was one gentleman who worked at a local public health lab who said, "Look, come on in and talk to me about it." I walked in and he said, "What do you know about virology?" "Nothing." "What do you know about cell biology?" "Nothing." He gave me this stack of textbooks, like Molecular Biology of the Gene. He said, "You can read all of this and I'm here every day after 4:30. I will work with you. I will help you," but he just let it be on me. Suffice to say, make a long story short, I designed a little experiment with him to test whether viruses caused cell death. The results were inconclusive because it was a very basic experiment, but it was my first time working in the lab and I loved it.


The following year, I ended up coming back to that lab and starting a project which, then, I worked on through high school. That was six years of working in that lab and it was just so incredibly important [contribution made by] Michael, the gentleman at the public health lab, and the English teacher.

Francis Vigeant:


That's interesting. At least for myself, I know that I found when I think about critical thinking and I think about the critical thinking skills: creative ,evaluative, and analytical skills that are required to be a scientist or an engineer, I often associate those, even in my experience, with my English teachers in middle school and in high school. In talking with other innovators, I know Lewis Athanas, who invented audio glass and a number of other audio products, shared his leading to audio engineering was through his English teacher, as well. I wonder, jumping around here a little bit, what does it really mean to be a good scientist or engineer? Is there some connection to the arts a little bit?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


It's a great question. I think one of the reasons why Michael was such a great teacher was that, even though he knew things weren't going to work out, he never told me. He never squashed any of the creative ideas that I had. He never poo-pooed it or said, "I already know that's not going to work," or "That's a bad idea," or whatever. He let me figure it out by myself and encouraged it. "You want to go try it? Try it. Why do you think that's the case?" He made me describe why I wanted to set up experiments a certain way. He made me really think it through.

I think the easiest way to make someone feel like they're not good enough or not smart enough is to say, "We know that's not going to work," but you're 11, you're 12, you're young, you're a kid. You don't know that it's going to work or not, so you want to be encouraged and then you learn, "Oh, okay. That didn't work. Here's what I would do to change that experiment."


I think these are the skills that define what it means to be a scientist. When you say "research", there's a reason why it's "research", R-E-search because you have to do it more than once. It doesn't work out the first time. Maybe it will. Maybe you're super lucky and it does, but rarely, right. You learn the skills of perseverance. You don't take it personally if it doesn't work out. It's a learning experience. You adapt. You improve the design. You improve the experiment. You fix things as you go. You learn very early on that there is no stupid questions. You want to be curious. You want to be able to ask people things and learn and experiment and try things.

I think that's what makes true mentors really exceptional. They're able to guide you to learn these different things, even if they know that what you're doing isn't going to work, but they know how to inspire you. They know how to help you build confidence and they know how to help you to think the right way. Ultimately, science is not about memorizing facts. We live in a society where we can look anything up online, but how do you use that information in a way that is productive, that builds something. Those are the critical thinking skills that everyone is talking about.

Francis Vigeant:


It seems like the, new Next Gewneration Science Standards, are a shift from a traditional model of instruction, and perhaps even the reason for teaching science, to something that's "next generation". The way we look at that difference here at KnowAtom is to say that a traditional model of defining or even teaching science was this idea that there are facts that you need to know and those facts get somehow projected at children and children need to absorb those and be able to project them back. That's where that fill in the blank model of assessment and whatever we want to call it, definition of proficiency, originates.


Under these Next Generation Science Standards, or at least the way the National Research Council has talked a lot about what the Next Generation Science Standards should represent with science and engineering practices, is the idea that the content is not sufficient. I think how they define science is along the lines of what you're describing, it's about the ability to develop and use content, to actually go beyond that to think about it. I guess it sounds like what you're describing is that, as educators, it's not just the facts that we need to focus on, but really how we question and challenge students to think in the classroom and to create, evaluate, and analyze scientifically.


Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Absolutely. I think that there is just the challenge for most educators today is just that there's not enough time. There's not always a lot of time, especially for STEM, with all of the emphasis on other subject areas. It's just, educators are up against a lot of hardship, so it's difficult to, in addition to teaching the content, because you still do have to teach something content wise, to then also have the time to even go beyond and to do these additional pieces that you're talking about, Francis. Part of what I think the purpose of the Next Generation Science Standards [is to] integrate all of this together. Again, whether or not that ends up being feasible with the time, resources, et cetera, that folks have, that remains to be seen, but I absolutely agree with you.

Francis Vigeant:


Building on that, I guess I see the switch or the purpose of science in the classroom changing. I guess I see it as changing from learning about what scientists and engineers have done to learning to be a scientist or engineer. I'm not sure, we'll see how that fleshes out. I guess one of the questions I really want to ask is that, as a scientist and entrepreneur and as an engineer, really, how do you define innovation? It seems like, if we're going to teach children to be scientists and engineers, it has something to do with innovation. What is innovation to you?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


First of all, let me just say my trajectory, I never really thought about becoming an entrepreneur and innovator. Part of that is because this is not taught. Even in college, at MIT, the reason why I went and started Science From Scientists is because I saw others starting businesses and I think I was very fortunate that I had these real life role models doing it, but it's just not something that one considers, simply because it's not like you take a class on entrepreneurship. I think it's happening more now than it used to, but it's definitely still- You go and you give talks at the college level. Now I've given talks at MIT and even at BU Med. It's just not something that folks consider as a viable career opportunity. It's not as well known as- I think it would be nice for it to be more well-known, but it's not.


With regards to innovation, it's a difficult question. It's doing something unique, doing something new, and doing something cutting edge, but it can be defined very much by the individual. There's so many options. If you have a STEM degree, you can choose to start a business that is in STEM. In my case, I was in bio sciences, so it was biotech, but you can also start businesses in bioinformatics and in topics that bridge the gap between different fields. That's something that's happening more and more.

 

Before, if you had a degree in biology, there were jobs. Now you almost have to branch out and have additional skill sets or you have bioinformatics or biostatistics. I think you have to push the envelope a little bit and spread your wings and be a little more cross disciplinary comfortable, if that makes any sense.


I do think that, to me, innovation is defined by something new, something exciting, something useful, but it can be socially useful. I think that starting a nonprofit to help people is innovative. Starting a biotech to help people is innovative. It's a tough question. I think it's a broad answer. I think it depends that which is right for you as that innovator. As long as you're passionate about it and you feel that there's a place for it and it's useful, then you've checked the boxes.

Francis Vigeant:


Would it be fair, do you think, to define innovation as extending something, basically from what's known to what's unknown, in a sense?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Of course. Innovation suggests "new". It can be an extension as long as it's something that's novel.

Francis Vigeant:


When you think about something like Ixcela, this biotech that you've started, is there a connection there in terms of the innovation? Did you see a space where you said, "Here's something on the left and here's something on the right, but there's nothing in between but that Ixcela can fill this gap with testing for internal fitness and trying to resolve it"?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Absolutely. There are a couple of different levels for Ixcela. The gut microbiome space has become, though it's still quite new, it's become something that you see more and more businesses being set up in the microbiome space. We're also interested in preventive medicine.

Part of the  concept behind Ixcela is, if you can, earlier on in people's lives, correct the thing that could potentially down the road lead to worse things, then you've done a service by helping them to live and lead healthier lives. The gut microbiome is the specific, I don't want to say organ, but the specific practical location where we're doing this. The concept is how do we identify the problems before they become a real big problem. That is what I think makes Ixcela, from the 20,000 foot level, unique. Let's fix the problem before it happens.


Then, in doing so, you think about how much money you spend on healthcare and treating folks with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and all these debilitating diseases. Thus, if you can prevent these things from happening, you can really impact change because you're lowering the cost of healthcare, you're improving the healthcare system, you're empowering people to go and make more informed decisions about their own healthcare with their own physicians. You're giving them information that they can then use to live better lives.


That would be, I think, in Ixcela's case, that's one of the unique aspects. Then, of course, when you start looking at the technology and the way that we analyze the samples and the specific compounds, there is uniqueness there, as well. Why are these the compounds? How do we collect the samples? How do we process them? There's innovation there, as well.


If I had to tell you why Ixcela is unique, one, it is a personalized way of telling folks, "Hey, look, something in the body may not be where you want it to be. Let's try to fix it. Here's how." It's all actionable, which I think is very, very important. "Let's try to keep you healthy enough so that you're minimizing your chances of having bad things go wrong down the road."


Then, in general, as this company is dealing primarily in the supplements space, our goal is to- We're not diagnosing diseases. We're not treating diseases. I'm going to be very clear about that. That is not the goal. We can tell you about the health of the gut microbiome, but this is not a diagnostic, per se, company or a drug company, a therapeutic company.


We're trying to also help inform people about the specific types of supplements that they need. You go to Whole Foods and you decide, "Maybe I need to take Vitamin B6 and maybe I need to take Vitamin D" and you take it blindly. My theory on this is you want to treat every supplement as if it's a drug. If you can inform people about whether they need specific types of intervention, then you're preventing them from taking supplements that they might not actually need. I call it the science of supplements, but the science of supplementation. Rather than just blindly dosing yourself, we give you the information to know whether or not you even need it.

Francis Vigeant:


That's really interesting. You saw a gap between folks who not only are looking for information about their health, but, on top of it, are looking to improve their health through different supplements, but who were basically doing so blindly and this really fits that gap of providing the information so that, instead of taking a supplement that you may not need and perhaps not knowing about one that you do or the effects of taking one or the other or a combination of things. This really closes the loop, I guess, not to sound too kitchy, but closes the loop on that.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Absolutely. That's exactly right. I think those are the unique sides of the innovative- really, the 20,000 foot innovation at Ixcela.

Francis Vigeant:


Thinking about your experience in K-12. In 6th grade, you go to the alligator farm, you get your curiosity piqued, you come up with this science fair idea. You have a teacher that's letting you experiment and encouraging you to experiment. You go on to do this science fair project and actually convince somebody to mentor you and maybe use their lab, too, and so on. I guess, there's a combination of grit and skills and knowledge that all come together here.

Do you see that as something that every day K-12 teachers can do? It sounds like you had an English teacher that engaged you. It sounds like that's still possible today for English teachers and others. Would you encourage that, one, and two, do you see a connection between these kinds of skills and innovation with employment prospects for students in terms of actually getting them ready for college, if that's what they choose, or a trade or some combination?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


The answer is, yes. Of course, I think we can all help kids by teaching them the importance- I think perseverance, I think that's something that comes up all the time in discussions, but I can't emphasize the importance of being able to fail and try again. One of the things that I see now with many of the kids that we work with is they try once and it's like, "Oh, it didn't work. Okay, I guess I'm not going to do it," or "I must be bad at it," or "It's hard." Those are the three things that you hear.


How do you train the kids to embrace what's hard, then to do something to achieve something and then feel the pride that you feel after you've done something that's really hard? How do you celebrate that? We've come to this point where everyone's a winner. Even companies are now taking on this tactic where they're promoting employees every three to six months. They call it the merit badge approach, where they've created six additional awards that you can win just so that you feel like- They're hollow awards, just so you can feel like you're winning something. It's sad, but we, as a nation, whether you're a teacher or a parent, how do you really teach your kid, "Okay, it didn't work the first time. It's not a big deal. It doesn't mean that you're a failure. It means nothing, really. The real question is what are you going to do about it." Because, in real life, nothing works out the first time. It doesn't.

I was trained to the point where I never assumed it would work out the first time. My parents never made a big deal out of it. "Oh, it didn't work out. Whatever. Just do it again." You learn very quickly that, "Okay, I made my first call and it didn't work out. Somebody doesn't want to help me, but there's 30 other people on the list." It may be number 29 or 30 that says yes, but someone will say yes. Someone will help you. The right thing will happen if you can wait it out long enough.
Most of the entrepreneurs that I've talked to, you listen to their stories and how long it took them to succeed. It was not the first time, the second time, the third time. Sometimes, it was the 14th business model that they had. So much of the success of the kids today is going to be based on their ability to endure, their ability to just pick themselves up and just work hard and try again and again and again. It's our responsibility to make sure that we foster that learning process and make them feel like it's okay, that they need to go through this iteration.


If you're going to be smart about the way you do things, as you get a little older, you plan out the way you do your experiments or the way you're going to live your life, the decisions that you make. I'm not suggesting that you have to fail at everything every single time. That's not the point, but I think that working hard and persevering means that there's the expectation that you can try your best and, even if it doesn't work, that's not any social commentary about your skill set or your inability to do something. You just have to be able to pick up something and try again.

Francis Vigeant:


I know as a teacher, too, many of us will be familiar with the book MindSet. I'm not sure if that's a book that you're familiar with. It's been in the media recently around some of the research techniques that were associated, but I don't think it invalidates really what the book talks about, which is praising the effort and really praising the engagement and not the outcome as much. Of course, outcomes matter. "Go out and fail," that's not-

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Right? You wouldn't do that. Exactly.


Francis Vigeant:


No, you wouldn't. It always bothers me when people talk about embracing failure or encouraging failure because I think it's mistaking a mistake for a failure because I think that those are two different things. I think what you're talking about is expect that mistakes are going to happen, but persevere so that you don't fail, you continue and that's really where that grit and determination and that hard work really pays off. Is that correct?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Yeah. That's right. There's a great story. I was on a panel with Bernie Gordon, who is quite a well-known entrepreneur, and he tells this great story about the difference between failure and mistake. He said, "Look, you can make mistakes until the cows come home." If you ever get a chance, Google Bernie Gordon's speeches. He is very entertaining to listen to.

 

Making a mistake is one thing, but failure is another. If you're a startup entrepreneur and you miscalculate something and suddenly you run out of money because you did your math wrong and it ended up you only had three months of money left and you thought you had a year of money left. Now, you have to shut down your business. That's a huge- That's a failure, right. You've completely screwed it up. I hate to say that, but that's right.


Whereas a mistake is on a much smaller scale and you can learn from it and you can fix it. I think absolutely, you do not want to encourage everyone to just say, "Okay, I can make all of these really big, have failures all my life," but you encourage people to make mistakes with calculated risk.

Francis Vigeant:


I think, as scientists or engineers, that must be vital because, as you said earlier, you might get lucky and something works the first time, but that's Power Ball type luck. It's not common place for scientists and engineers. The mental picture I got when you were describing that is, and I think, too, you can almost judge a society by it's photo stock, when you see the kinds of images when you look at photo stock for engineering or science class or something like this, it's always this clinical lab type environment, but I picture those early folks out researching forms of antibiotics and they were out in fields with shovels looking for spores. Maybe you know the story better, but it's just that that was the kind of grit and determination that people were out in farm fields just trying to find the spores that they thought would be necessary to fight disease.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


The only time that I've ever had everything work out absolutely perfectly is when I make a mistake. We always joke in the lab that things work out perfectly when you actually make a miscalculation that works out for you. My co-founder says that many of his greatest discoveries were made because he did something accidentally wrong. It's a running joke. When you're actually planning it and it's all perfect, then it never works the first time. It's a situation in life where it's 9:00 at night in the lab and you're like, "Oh gosh, this is never going to work." Who knows, you put something together and, sure enough, that's when it works.

Francis Vigeant:


It's interesting, as a female scientist, what do you see- There's some big takeaways here as we're talking, I think, for classroom teachers, but one of the questions comes up often around what's lacking in K-12, from your experience, that would encourage more girls to pursue STEM careers the way you have?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Of what we've seen, one of the big ones was just role models. Not normally seeing female engineers or scientists and not realizing that was something that they could be when they grow up. I am fortunate in that most of the staff that work in Science From Scientists are female. Now, of course, when they go into classrooms, a lot of the girls say, "I've never seen a female scientist," and "You're pretty normal. You have a normal life and you have other interests." There remains this stereotyping of what it means to be a scientist and especially what it means to be a female scientist.

 

I think a lot of the girls that we work with are surprised when they have the opportunity to interact with scientists who have other interests and hobbies and have families and have very, very, "normal" lives. I think that some of it is just exposure to role models and others who have done this before and can talk to the kids about their experiences.


One of the other things that we've seen happen is the peer pressure side, which is, "My friends won't like me if I'm 'smart'," or "The boys won't like me if I'm a nerd." It's also one of the reasons why, when we send our female role model scientists into the classrooms, I think it's important for all of the boys to also see that women can be in these positions because then they're less likely to make fun of their peers and say, "Girls can't do that." [When boys] say it, I really believe this 1000%, that no one says that absolutely thinking and doing it in a nasty way.


One of our good friends has a six year old son. She said one day they were driving past a baseball field and the girls were playing baseball. He said, "Girls don't play baseball." She said, "What do you mean? Why not?" "I've never seen them." You think about it, most major league baseball is played by men. It's what he's seen. That's what he's been exposed to, so that's what he said. I don't mean it like girls don't have the ability to do that, but he's never been exposed, so that's the perception that he had.


So much of it is based on what you've seen and the experiences that you've had. It's one of these things where you try to bring in the right types of role models in for both boys and girls to see, to learn about what it means to be a scientist or an engineer of a certain type, what personality types- There's all different types of people who do this. Somehow it takes away the mystique. It makes it more approachable, especially when the scientist says, "I took that class. It was really hard. I had to drop it or take it again."

 

It's not like all scientists were born perfect. It's like, "I took every science class and I got an A plus and that's what made me a scientist." No. There are subjects that we're good in. There are subjects that are a little bit more challenging for us. I think once the kids can see that, then it changes everything about the scariness of science and it makes it much more approachable and understandable, like all other subjects.

Francis Vigeant:


It's interesting, there seems to be a common theme as we've been talking to different innovators, particularly women scientists or engineers, who talk about their experiences as having that mentor or at least the knowledge that being a scientist or an engineer was not incompatible with some of their life goals, as well. Particularly, I think, as people talk about in high school and college, they will often talk about thinking, "I want to have children," and so on and so forth, "That's a priority for me. Can scientists do that? Can engineers do that?" When they would meet women who were scientists or engineers and realize that they had normal lives like everybody else, they felt that that was something that was an option for them.


The example of the six-year-old boy saying, "Girls don't play baseball," because he hadn't actually seen that in major league baseball, it makes perfect sense. I wonder, too, if sometimes the way that science is approached, sometimes having less purpose in terms of building cars and blowing things up in physics class and crashing things, that seems to be somewhat of a turn off at times to folks, to girls, as well. Is that something that was consistent with your experience at all?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


That's a good question. I'd say I don't have enough data to tell you for certain. I think that there are definitely things that you see. Girls work very differently when you see them in teams than boys. They're different. Girls and boys are different. They just are. They just are. People have tried all kinds of different things, everything from designing chemistry classes around the makeup of chemistry, the science of chemistry and behind makeup, things that are more appropriate to the female "mind", but I think that there's a controversy there because there are folks that say, "That shouldn't be the case and you're going to train your daughter from an early age to do all these things. Why not just give her blocks like you give your son?" It gets into this area that I try very much to avoid.


My philosophy on this is, whether you have a daughter or a son, you do your best to expose them to as many different things as you possibly can, whether that's Barbies and Legos or toys and GI Joe, whatever that is going to be, but you let them try everything. You show them everything. You bring them the blocks. You bring them the Legos. You can still play dress up. At the end of the day, you give them that broad choice of different things and then you see what ends up being of interest.


People are so very different and you never know what's going to spark a child's mind in any given direction. I read books on books on science. That was my initial exposure. I love to read, still, but I'm a scientist and now a business person, which is completely not what I thought was going to have happen. I think we try our best to provide children with a wide range of different experiences and to not pass judgment on them and then see what appeals to each individual child and see if we can foster that as they grow.

Francis Vigeant:


Before we open this up for questions, because I think we have a few questions here, I wanted to ask you, I'm sure that folks are listening saying, "I'm with you. You're preaching to the choir, but if you knew the folks that are teaching in the classroom next to me or down the hall, next door, or even teach my own children, they're not into STEM. They don't see the value in STEM. They're not on the same page as us." From those people who aren't on the same page, they might say something like, "Today we have 4% of the kids that graduate go on to become scientists or engineers.

 

We could double the number of scientists and engineers to 8%. That would be more than adequate for our needs, so there are actually more sales and marketing people than there are scientists and engineers, yet we're being asked to teach 100% of the students science and engineering and not things like sales and marketing.” Why should, and I guess this is the question, why should every student learn STEM or science, technology, engineering, and math in K-12, from your perspective?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


I think there's two reasons. More than two, but two major overarching reasons. One is the skills that you are trained to have when you are learning STEM are applicable for any job that you might want in the future, so teamwork, critical thinking, observation, try and retry, perseverance, sticking to it, experimentation, all of these things, having an open mind and creativity, whatever, these are all skills that you will need no matter what. Whether or not you become a scientist or an illustrator, whatever you're doing, these are skills that are important have.


From the more practical workforce development piece, we hear every day how there are simply not enough scientists and engineers, that companies are struggling to find talent here at home. They have to either move their business overseas or bring in outsourced staff. The sad part is, many of these jobs are high paying jobs. What happens is, in the long term, that if we are not competitive in STEM fields and companies are sending these high quality jobs elsewhere, then it really impacts, I think, the standard of living that we have here and that we're used to having here, especially if the companies are sending the highest paid jobs elsewhere.


I think from one perspective it's, look, the skills that you learn in studying STEM are applicable to any field and are important to have. Then there's this aspect of we really don't want to be sending many of our highest paying jobs elsewhere because I just think it's bad for the country as a whole.

Francis Vigeant:


I think that idea, too, that if you are in sales or you are in marketing or you're, frankly, designing buildings or building buildings, having an appreciation and knowledge of science and the scientific thinking skills really helps you support those industries, as well, as they grow and as our economy shifts. That's really interesting. We have a number of different questions here. I'm trying to consolidated these into a few, and a number of thank yous.

I think this one maybe puts it all together in one. "Thank you, Erika for being a great role model for women in science." Another here asking, "Is there a connection between Ixcela and robotics?" We didn't actually mention that your husband is the CEO of iRobot, so I suppose there is at least some connection here, but could there be, if there isn't in terms of technology that you're building and robotics in some form?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Currently, no. iRobot, it's interesting, because of my connection to Colin, the easier "connection" would be on the STEM side because iRobot has a STEM initiative where a lot of their employees go and volunteer in classrooms and they do robotics demos, they have Create, which is an older version of Rumba, but it's programmable that access for high school with their teachers. Because of the nature and it's my husband, there's very strict rules about how much the two companies can financially work together. They don't. There's no money that is transacted between iRobot and Science From Scientists. Sometimes they'll be at an event, we'll be at an event, but there's no money involved.


Ixcela, in terms of, there's no direct connection with iRobot at all because Ixcela is a biotech, but, with that being said, we are looking to automate certain processes, so there is a discussion around how do we create certain robotic tools that can help us in the future to automate some of the processes that we currently have to do by hand.

Francis Vigeant:


Interesting. Automation for cost reasons or automation for precision or both or something else?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


I'd say probably both, but also just throughput. If you can get a robot to do more. Let's say you have 10,000 samples that you have to process. You either have to hire way more lab scientists or you could just- if you could design the right type of instrument that would allow you to process them all simultaneously, that would be wonderful. Of course, that assumes Ixcela will become wildly successful, which, of course, it has to, right? That's a given. Obviously, precision-wise, if done properly, robotics technology is very precise, as well, more so than just the same person doing the same job over and over again. There's multiple reasons to do it, but it's costly and we're still quite small, so we haven't gotten there yet.

 

Francis Vigeant:


Some folks have asked questions around science and engineering processes and you just mentioned process and process has come up indirectly in some of the things we've discussed so far. The question I think is this: Science and engineering practices are the skills specific to science and engineering and I think that to say they're specific to science and engineering is an overstatement, but, for instance, the ability to argue from evidence is an example of a next generation engineering practice and gathering data and to be able to ask questions and identify problems and so on. Those are examples of science and engineering practices or skills. You talked about process and we think about things like the engineering design process or scientific process or, if we wanted to be dated, we could say maybe scientific process. Right, because that's not cool anymore.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


I know.

Francis Vigeant:


Do you feel like they both have a place? Can you argue from evidence without some process? Does process have value?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


It does to me. I think a lot of it has to do with how you think. Probably then, by definition, you will define process differently. I'm not trying to be vague, but I think- For example, my definition of how I go about setting up experiments, I have a process. Then, when you think about how other people- I was doing my PhD and you have other people sitting around you and you can see what their process was for doing their own experiments or making their own decisions. Everyone has a slightly different variant that works, in theory, for them.


I'm a linear thinker, so A goes to B goes to C goes to D. Some folks, for example, Wayne, my co-founder, he goes from Z to B to P to the number 3. That is his thought process. He is an inventor and it works very well for him. He is a scientist and engineering background, as well. I think you try to figure out or help children to determine what is the process that is right for them to get from A to Z. For me, it's A B C D E, et cetera. For others, it may be in a more circuitous route, but there is no one way of doing things, though there is for me.


Again, it's complicated. I think part of it is when we go into the classrooms and we teach some of these skills, some of the lessons start with a lecture. There's the lecture, do the experiment, come back and talk about it, and then do another experiment, which is very traditional. There are other lessons that we teach where you actually do the experiment first and you see what happens and then you go and you do the lecture. You're changing around the order because sometimes in life you don't just sit down and have a lecture first. It just doesn't happen. You actually have to try it, see what happens, and then adapt and modify and improve.


Unfortunately, it's not the clearest answer, but everyone- You figure out there may be several different learning styles. You figure out how to, depending on the specific lesson, how do you teach the different methodologies. Then the kids, depending on which one works for them, they will use that growing up and maybe there will be more than one and maybe they'll be able to understand, "In this case, I can use this methodology," or "In this case I can use that methodology," and they'll be armed with a toolkit to face different types of situations as they arise.

Francis Vigeant:


I know at KnowAtom, in the context of science, we use the scientific process. We actually call it the scientific method, but it would vary from- The people can go to teacher stores and buy scientific method posters, get 10 of them and all 10 would be different. We also engage engineering design process, as well, when we're problem solving. I think your point is well taken that having logic to be able to step forward, essentially, once in a linear fashion to get some data and then you become nonlinear as you pivot and use what you learned to engage in your next experiment or your next prototype or so on and that the value of- It's almost the value of logic, perhaps, and people's logic processes change.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Right. In general, when you're teaching you have to have some structure because, again, there's limited time. You say, "What is the problem?" You write it down. "What is a potential solution?" You try it. "What happened? Did it work, did it not work? If it didn't work, why not?" Go back, fix it, try it again. That's the traditional engineering design methodology, but some people just go and build it. The first thing they do is just build and then from there they- You can go and make alterations to the plan.


If it was me answering, it would be very clear. I know exactly how I go about solving most problems and probably incredibly predictable in the way that I do that, but I have now seen different types of intelligences and I've seen very successful ones who go about solving things differently from how I do and it still works out. I've become more understanding and more like, "Okay, you just do what works for you," because, ultimately, there is no one set solution that's going to work for every single person.

Francis Vigeant:


Especially, too, I think when we consider complex problems, I think the easy problems have all been solved, so if we think about more and more complex issues- This will probably be our last question. Is it more about how you teach than what you teach?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


I think what you teach is important, but I think how you teach is probably more so because how you teach ends up as- Let me go backwards. How you teach will determine, to some extent, whether or not the child remains interested or may be turned off or intimidated. That happens in the actual delivery, in the support, in the interpersonal nature in which the content is delivered. What you teach is also important because if the content isn't interesting or whatever because there's a million things that could happen or the kids don't relate to it or whatever. You could have situations that don't work out, either.


I actually think that if you are charismatic and encouraging and you can be relatable and tell good stories and try to inspire the child, it's less important what you're actually doing. I've seen amazing content go completely over people's heads or be presented in such a way where nobody has cared or it's just not relevant, et cetera, and I've seen content that might be not as great, but taught by someone who is truly inspiring who gets those kids thinking about other things, making them excited, feeling confident…


Think about my life now, 20 years later, I don't remember what the specific lesson was that I was taught back in 6th grade, what that bacterial petri dish retirement was. I don't remember what that first thing was, but I do remember that my English teacher was so awesome and inspiring that I wanted to learn more. I wanted to read more and that was the choice that I made. To say that content doesn't matter, no, of course it matters, but if the balance scale, if I had to describe it, I'd put more weight on how, rather than what.

Francis Vigeant:


It's an interesting question because it's almost, if you think about it in a driving context, is it how fast you drive or where you drive, or it's a combination that maybe makes you a better driver or less accident prone or something like this, but in the case of teaching, it's really, I see what you're saying, it's really both. It's how you approach the discipline and also what you're approaching, is it relevant, is it engaging because if students aren't engaged, it probably doesn't matter what you teach. Thank you very much- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


One last quick thought. We just had an interesting example. I was asked to interview a student who had been in our program. There were a couple questions who our corporate sponsors had asked, "Find someone who's been in your program." I found a girl, she's now at BU. She's a sophomore. They asked some of these same questions. "What do you remember about your Science From Scientists class? What was really unique about it." It's not like she cited any specific lesson. She didn't say, "Oh, during the phases of the moon lesson, I really enjoyed that." It was more about the instructor that she had was inspirational, made her feel like she could be a scientist, that she could learn, that she had the skill set to persevere. Now, she's a genetic nutritionist. It's an interesting career choice, but she is pursuing a STEM career and she's in school and she's doing it.


I'm always interested in, after the fact, 20 years down the road, do you remember the exact content or do you remember the person and the feeling and the support and all of the things that they did for you to make you excited and interested and inspired. Usually, it's that more than just the lesson itself.

Francis Vigeant:


That's great. I think we all probably have somebody in our background that we can think of that would fit really in line with what you just said. Thank you very much and I want to make sure that everybody who is joining us also has a chance to take a look at Ixcela's site. I know it's about to launch at the time of the live session, but to check back if it's not live, yet, and also to check out Science From Scientists and to compare and contrast or just to differentiate a bit from what KnowAtom does and Science From Scientists.


KnowAtom's focus is on really developing the classroom educator, whether it's a kindergarten teacher, 1st, 2nd, so on, to be able to deliver effective STEM instruction all on their own, with the materials we provide: NGSS aligned curriculum, hands-on resources, professional development. What Science From Scientists offers is a scientist, somebody who has, and correct me if I'm wrong, somebody who has a science degree, like a master's or a PhD, who can go into the classroom and actually play the role of role model and deliver content, as well. The content lives with that scientist, but that's also a quite valuable mentor opportunity, as well, as we were talking earlier, to be able to have especially a woman scientist perhaps join.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


That is correct. We try to help, obviously, the teachers that we work with, but not in the same way- You have all of the content laid out, so it's different. That is a difference, as well, between us, but I think they're great programs that are very compatible with each other.

Francis Vigeant:

 

Absolutely. I think, also, you have after school connections, too, as far as if folks are looking to afterschool- I know some folks who may join our session might be familiar with FIRST Robotics and will engage that as an after-school opportunity for students. Science From Scientists has after school opportunities, as well, is that correct?

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


We have some. Usually through, like, for example, the Boston Public Libraries or through the Boys and Girls Club or through local Y[MCA]s. We do that, as well. We also have certain outreach programs, like science camps. We don't call them camps. We call them vacation programs, but they're during vacation time. It's week-long programs that we offer, as well as science theater shows where we light things on fire and blow things up and try to get kids up on the stage doing interactive science. I'd say predominantly our main programming is the in-school every other week piece where we work with the kids and classroom teachers to bring neat science into the classroom.

Francis Vigeant:


That's great. Definitely check out these two sites. I want to thank you, Erika, for your time and your willingness to join us, share your experience, answer all these questions. I know I've learned a lot. There's no better source than a scientist, an engineer, and an entrepreneur herself.

Dr. Ebbel Angle:


Thank you so much for having me.

Francis Vigeant:


Thank you. If you're interested to learn any more about KnowAtom or stay connected for more interviews and other online events like this, you can stay connected through our blog.

 

Topics: Guest Innovator, Paths to Innovation

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