Taking Risks and Saving Soldier and Civilian Lives: Brought to You by Tenure

An interview with Rebecca Lai, Professor in the UNL Chemistry Department

This post is part of our series, Brought to You by Tenure.

Rebecca Lai.

Dr. Rebecca Lai is a tenured Professor of Chemistry at UNL and a Fellow with the National Strategic Research Institute, where she has partnered with the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to develop biosensors that can be worn on clothing or attached to drones. I recently had a chance to chat with Dr. Lai about her work and how tenure has contributed to her ability to make a difference in the world. Importantly, Dr. Lai’s experience shows how high-risk, high-reward research might not happen without tenure. Dr. Lai also provides insight into the importance of tenure for a faculty member’s ability to develop a lab and mentor graduate students. Below is a shortened version of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: So, tell me about your work with biosensors. What are the biosensors for, and why are they important?

Lai: I have a number of different projects developing biosensors for both biomedical and defense applications. For example, I am collaborating with researchers at the University of Connecticut to develop biosensors for real time detection of dopamine, serotonin, and other neurochemicals in the mouse brain. Eventually, these sensors will be able researchers to study human diseases in mouse models, such as Parkinson’s, depression, and Alzheimer’s, ultimately improving human health. I am also part of the Nebraska EQUATE Center, and I collaborate with various researchers on the development of spin crossover complexes and materials for memory devices and other electronic application. The goal is to develop materials that can be used for memory and data storage in electronic devices that use less energy but still have improved memory and processing capabilities.

I am also collaborating with the U.S. military, working on sensors to eventually be placed on drones. The sensors can detect military relevant targets – toxins, proteins, small molecules – that are important for threat reduction. The sensors will be able to quickly, efficiently, and effectively sense the presence or absence of certain types of chemical and biological warfare agents that can affect human health. Once we can detect these agents others can work on developing methods to mitigate those threats – but first you have to sense whether the threat is there or not so you can protect U.S. soldiers and civilians from those threats.

Niehaus: What role do you think having tenure played in your ability to engage in this project?

Without tenure, I think a lot of work would not get done that’s a bit more risky, that would rely on more resources. There is always something that is a little bit less groundbreaking, but at the same time, you’ll get something done, versus trying to do something that is high risk and high reward. Just being a contract worker for X number of years, there are certain things I definitely would not try.

For example, I had a collaborative project with a company to develop a paper based sensor to detect nitrates in Nebraska’s groundwater. Unfortunately that project was not a success, not because of an issue with the sensor, but the collaboration did not work out. But it was still a good thing. I learned about entrepreneurship, about the technology. I learned about what the industry wants from sensors and how to provide that, how to bridge the disconnect between academic research and what the industry wants and needs. But that project was high-risk – obviously, since it failed. I would not have touched any entrepreneurial work if there was no tenure system. I would continue to do more fundamental research and get funding for that research.

But now, I am developing similar sensors for both defense and biomedical applications, because the sensors that I developed are very versatile. This project builds on the previous failed collaboration, and from the experience I have gained from various collaborations. I am now more equipped to pursue more difficult and applied projects in general, because I was able to take those risks with tenure.

Niehaus: Beyond the ability for faculty members to take the risks necessary to do important, innovative work like this, why do you think tenure is important?

Lai: I can really only speak for STEM fields, but in STEM, and especially in the physical sciences like engineering and chemistry, it easily takes two years for a faculty member to establish a full lab with equipment. It’s not like you walk into a lab; usually you get an office space, but without the needed instruments, chemicals, reagents, and other equipment you might need. So you have to decide this is what I need, this is the work I am going to do, I am going to need XYZ pieces of equipment. And then I need this number of students who are going to work on projects A, B, C, and D. We need tenure to provide the continuity and stability needed for faculty to invest in developing a lab at the university.

Not having tenure would also be destabilizing, particularly for graduate students. We want PhD students to be able to finish in 5 years, but maybe it takes 6 or 6 and a half. If a professor is only there for a 5-year contract and the professor is not renewed or chooses to leave, then there is a leftover graduate student, and what will happen to that student? It would be tremendously destabilizing and complex for the department to solve these issues.

I know that some people think tenure makes people lazy and that faculty don’t work as hard as before. But after tenure we work just as hard; we actually work harder! We have more of a service load. We have more things we want to test. It doesn’t make sense to think that faculty would just shut down, turn off their passion after tenure. People are just not like that. Tenure is a long, and often challenging evaluation process for many, and you can tell long before tenure whether that person is going to continue on a good trajectory. You really have to demonstrate a lot in terms of your capabilities in order to get tenure. And then after tenure you continue to have yearly reviews and you constantly have to be bringing in funding and publishing, and these things are not always easy.

For a lot of people, being a professor is a calling. We could go into industry if we prefer; it is not just about monetary value. But if we lose the tenure system, we will lower our competitiveness in science and technology.