Dr Lee, a scientific consultant at Exponent, Inc.

No to exploding phones: scientific consultants to keep you safe

10 April 2017

As news pundits squabble over tampered footballs, the recall of a popular car, or even why the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, a phone will ring in Menlo Park.

Exponent is a full-service engineering and scientific consulting firm, one of those famed Silicon Valley entities seemingly cloaked in mystery. The reality can be much more prosaic, Dr Jessica Lee warns, though the expertise of the band of Bond-esque Qs and the work they do seems anything but. “Whenever a company has a new product, there is a host of questions: is this possible, why is this not working, why did this happen?” With technology integrated in more daily use items, getting smaller and more powerful, there are often unintended consequences and higher chances of something going wrong. Exponent might be brought in during the product development stage to put a proposed gadget through its rigorous testing processes, or sometimes are brought in to be Olivia Pope-style investigators after a crisis has already bloomed. We both pause and think of a host of major brand-name products imploding across the news, but don’t discuss.

Lee is part of the Exponent team in Hong Kong, a relatively new outpost catering to the needs of the electronics manufacturing industry in China. “It’s very different from what I did in grad school, a unique chance to apply my scientific knowledge to making better products, seeing how they work, and making them safer,” Lee says. It also puts Lee at the forefront of applied science, with a constant stream of questions from companies, factories, and the products themselves. Interdisciplinary scientific curiosity has a high premium at Exponent, and the environment is an intoxicating one for a young scientist. “I enjoy figuring out things on my own, but the breadth of experience within the company is a huge resource, as is all the specialized instruments and facilities,” she explains.

The idea of chemistry and science as a tactile, living tool was instilled in Lee by a college professor who made organic chemistry feel like a language to learn. “It wasn’t until then that I really understood that as long as you know chemistry, you can modify molecules, change basic structures of things, like a key puzzle piece,” she remembers. This spurred her to study chemistry for her undergraduate degree and then on to chemical biology research at the doctoral level. Adding more biology to the mix came naturally, as Lee was drawn to more applied science. Crafting needs-based molecules to understand scientific phenomena is as interdisciplinary as it gets, melding physics, material science, biology, and chemistry. “There’s a beautiful logic to having a problem in mind and making something to address it, such as in curing diseases or medical need,” Lee says, “But even in this kind of research, you don’t see the impact until much later down the line.” Debating between industry and academia, the pull of wanting to have a tangible impact and doing something more high-impact and hands on won out.

Lee found Exponent by chance at a career fair, and the breadth of applied science that the work offered immediately drew her interest. “The company and the job are so niche, somewhere halfway between academia and industry, and it was clear that this would be a place to think and learn quickly. Whereas graduate study offered interesting projects but at rare intervals, her role at Exponent was a steady stream of unique projects lasting a few weeks at the most, with plenty of exposure to new ideas. “Every day is fast-paced and unexpected,” Lee remarks, “In grad school, the goal was to write a paper, publish, and hope that people find it useful someday in the future. Here, the problems and the answers we provide have a real impact on improving people’s lives.”

Department and job requirements are blurrier at Exponent, where the case comes first. Lee’s projects might focus on general risk assessment, proactive testing before a product launch, or reactive investigations after something goes awry. “To know why things behave in a certain way, we collect evidence in a myriad of ways and use scientific knowledge as a key to come to the right answer—and we do think there is a right and wrong answer,” she says. Although strictly bound by confidentiality agreements, Lee’s team agreed to give us a glimpse into a hypothetical situation they might be involved with. Wearable devices like smart watches, sleep or glucose monitors, or virtual reality headsets are rising in popularity, but have special considerations because its complex machinery and materials would be on a person’s skin for extended periods of time. Therefore, material’s adaptability and interaction with water, sweat, skin oils, and other factors must also be accounted for. For example, sun, sweat, and sunscreen can cause chemical reactions and leaching in polymers, adding critical safety elements to the need to make the product lightweight and functional.

To know why things behave in a certain way, we collect evidence in a myriad of ways and use scientific knowledge as a key to come to the right answer—and we do think there is a right and wrong answer

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to set guidelines for wearable devices because the industry is still so new, giving manufacturers and the Exponent team more flexible parameters and a chance to help set industry standards. This makes the job more interesting, Lee notes, because being the arbiter of safety, quality, and consumer and corporate needs requires an analytical mind for far-reaching risk assessment. “It’s still a developing field, so we have to be as meticulous and creative as possible when testing these products, imagining everything possible that people wear, do, use, or go,” Lee says, “Companies need to know and fix these safety and performance flaws before bringing them to market, so we ask questions like: How safe is the material for the user? Is anything toxic, irritant, allergenic, or could they react with skin contact or wearing conditions to be so? These devices often require special batteries; could they leak?” All these circumstances and more are replicated in the lab, as devices are dunked in water, artificial sweat, lotion, and other tests, quantified with analytical techniques. Molecules that are known irritants or cause allergies are quantified by GC/MS determine the amount leached out; ICPMS tests metal transfer or leaks, as with lead; and immunoassays quantify the amount of allergenic proteins. Some tests are not as aggressive, but studied over time to realistically mimic exposure to skin contact. After identifying weaknesses, Lee’s team would propose alternative coatings, paints, metals, or adhesives, which are all common problem areas in waterproofing or smaller batteries.

“Science” is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and less staid. As a relatively new area of study, more people are drawn to chemical biology for the infinite possibilities it offers through the merging of two fields. “You have to be really curious and creative to make use of the information for better advances and collaboration with applied or clinical scientists,” Lee advises, “Try new things, think about how different scientific principles can work together in unexpected places.”

Dr Lee is currently a scientific consultant at Exponent, Inc., a global multi-disciplinary engineering and scientific consulting firm that brings together more than 90 different disciplines to solve important engineering, science, regulatory, and business issues. She works from Exponent’s Hong Kong office in the Science Park and tackles clients’ technical problems ranging from consumer electronics manufacturing to medical device product designs.

To view Dr Lee’s Croucher profile, please click here.