In 2004, sophomore molecular and cell biology major Nicole Wagner spent her time between classes at a laboratory sink, washing dishes.
Many, many dishes, she recalls.
“I remember I cleaned about a thousand test tubes one day,” she laughs. “It could get really tedious!”
Fast forward to 2011, and she was named the CEO of a Connecticut-based biochemical research and development company. This year, she earned one of eleven Connecticut Women of Innovation awards given by the Connecticut Technology Council.
“It was a huge honor to get the award,” she says. “All the other women and girls who were honored are doing equally important things, and it’s exciting to see the young girls progressing from where I once was.”
The 27-year-old is a biochemistry PhD student working with Robert Birge, the Harold S. Schwenk, Sr., Distinguished Chair in Chemistry in CLAS. Among other projects, her work focuses on a venture the Birge lab is famous for: developing an artificial retina to restore sight to patients blinded by degenerative diseases.
“Right now there’s no cure,” she says of people who suffer from age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, two of the diseases the Birge group studies. In these patients, photoreceptor cells in the eye atrophy and degenerate over time, a condition that is irreversible.
Wagner got her start in the Birge lab in 2004 when she applied for a position as a student worker cleaning glassware left over from experiments and wiping down the lab benches. She admits that at first, she was a little hesitant about the job.
“Before my first experience in a lab, I had the stereotypical idea that scientists were nerds,” she muses. “But after just a few weeks of seeing what it’s like to work in a lab and gaining an understanding of the research, I was shown otherwise. The Birge lab is a great lab, full of so many great people and interesting research projects. That’s mainly why I decided to stay to do research.”
Within a year, Wagner began getting more involved in experiments, and when an opening came up to do molecular biology research, she jumped in.
For her undergraduate and now graduate studies, Wagner has been involved in optimizing specific proteins for a vision-restoring implant that would be surgically implanted into a patient’s eye.
“We’re in the proof-of-concept phase, so we’re asking questions like: What’s the optimal light intensity needed to activate our implant? Does it degrade? If so, how? Is it stable?” she says. “Everything is coming together, and things are progressing the way we want them to.”
The thin, flexible patch contains light-activated proteins that can convert light into an ion gradient. This gradient can then activate a network of cells that will create a visual signal, restoring at least partial vision to people with these degenerative diseases.
As part of her duties as CEO of Lambdavision, the company that grew out of this research and its patents, Wagner has been conducting pre-clinical trials in collaboration with Dr. Ralph Jensen at the Boston VA Hospital. The company is continuing to secure intellectual property and has also started to form an advisory board.
Wagner hopes to stay with the company after graduating within the next year, and if all goes well, she thinks the implants could be tested in humans in the near future.
“I never expected to become a businessperson,” she admits. “I am constantly being challenged and learning new things each day.”
But, Wagner says, she continues to learn as she progresses, and she hopes that her experiences, along with the Connecticut Technology Council award, will inspire other women to make advances in science and business.
“It’s important for young girls to realize that you can dress up, be a mom and a wife, and still accomplish things in your career,” she says. “Women can have successful careers in science if they are willing to take risks and make mistakes. You just can’t be afraid to try.”