May 01, 2013

Scientific improvisation puts researchers in good company

Will Vizuete is a huge fan of jazz. In 2009 and 2010, he was disc jockey for a weekly jazz program on WXYC, the UNC campus station, and he’s still a volunteer DJ on occasion. Part of what he loves about jazz is the improvisation, the innovation. A musician may start with a riff and suddenly take it in a completely different direction. Another responds, works off the new riff on the fly, then improvises. Around the ensemble it goes, on beat, off beat, an impressive, dynamic, never predictable journey.

Vizuete in his office.

In some ways, jazz is similar to Vizuete’s work as a scientist.

This is especially so in the last few years, during which Vizuete joined an ensemble of colleagues and became entrepreneur and co-founder of his own start-up company – a venture that came out of the not-so-thin air. In fact, it was the gritty, smoggy air.

Early in his career, Vizuete knew smog and other air pollutants caused asthma, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses. But was the illness related only to the number of pollution particles, he wondered, or were there times of day or particular locations that made people more vulnerable to respiratory problems?

“[Based on the EPA’s models], toxicity is determined by how many toxic particles are in the air,” Vizuete says. “But if you examine data showing how many people die from lung ailments per cubic meter, you see that more people die in one area of the country than in another, even when the particulate mass per volume is identical. That means an important factor is being missed in the calculations.”

That factor, Vizuete believed, was right overhead – the sun.

“You can take an air sample and expose it to a day’s worth of sunlight,” he explains. “The sun sparks chemical activity, and the molecules absorb radiation. By sunset, the toxicity of that same sample has increased by five to 10 times its original levels.”

Vizuete knew this because, as a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, he had a chance to conduct research with Harvey Jeffries, PhD, professor emeritus of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Drs. Ken Sexton and Will Vizuete (l-r) describe the operation of the smog chamber on top of UNC's McGavran-Greenberg Hall.

rs. Ken Sexton and Will Vizuete (l-r) describe the operation of the smog chamber on top of UNC’s McGavran-Greenberg Hall.

Jeffries built the smog chamber that sits atop the School’s McGavran-Greenberg Hall, the first of its kind. The opportunity to work with Jeffries and see first-hand the data garnered by smog chamber sampling did much to inspire Vizuete’s interest in atmospheric chemistry.

The smog chamber revolutionized analysis of exhaust pollution and allowed researchers to replicate conditions in virtually any locale in the world. It had limitations, however. It was immobile and expensive to build, and shifts in the wind or quickly changing weather situations could render data useless. Vizuete was even more troubled by the analysis that happened after the sampling was done.

“We know that the smaller the particles, the more deadly they are,” he says. “This is especially so when they get below 2.5 micrometers in diameter. But around the world, air sample analyses use a liquid suspension. When the particles are suspended, they agglomerate and form bigger particles. We weren’t analyzing the riskiest pollutants. I kept thinking, ‘We need a better way to do this.'”

Jeffries and Dr. David Leith, retired professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC, had the same thought back in 2002. They tried to repurpose a piece of equipment from the mid-1970s, an electrostatic precipitator, to perform smog analysis that didn’t require the liquid suspension. By the time Vizuete met them, Jeffries and Leith had adapted the precipitator, placing the refrigerator-sized unit into an incubator and connecting it via a long, sealed duct from the smog chamber on the roof down to the basement of Rosenau Hall.

The reconfigured precipitator allowed researchers not only to examine samples directly, but also to see the effects when the samples were exposed to cultured lung cells and other tissue.

“But what if we could take the whole thing to Houston, Los Angeles, London, Beijing or wherever?” Vizuete asked. “What if we could set it up in a neighborhood adjacent to a factory or a refinery that was emitting high amounts of pollutants? Or bring it inside a building where some air-based environmental hazard was suspected and do sampling right there, in real time? Our data would be so much better, and we could better establish the risks of being in these cities or near these facilities. We could institute preventive measures.”

Idea, meet improvisation.

Vizuete joined the UNC environmental sciences and engineering faculty in 2005 and soon began discussing his idea with Kenneth Sexton, PhD, now a retired research professor from the Gillings School.

By 2007, they decided to see whether they could build a portable electrostatic unit. But where should they start in creating a sophisticated scientific device from scratch?

Why, with Glenn Walters, of course.

Walters is director of the Environmental Sciences and Engineering Design Center, a one-stop fabrication shop. He and his col¬leagues and students create devices of all sorts, made of metal, plastic and other materials, for researchers at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and across campus.

“My primary area of study is wastewater, and I had no direct experience in electrostatics or lung tissue sample analysis,” Walters says. “But my current portfolio is ‘whatever comes along.’ This often means I spend a lot of time discussing with researchers not only what they want but also the science behind it.”

One of the mechanical challenges was to enclose an incubator within the unit rather than the other way around. The sampling process, which involved a series of collection areas, also had to be refined. Each area was dime-sized and included a semipermeable membrane. The thought was to make it larger so as to increase the sensitivity of the readings.

“It’s always a puzzle when you start a new project, even one that has some established principles and components involved,” Walters says. “It’s almost like saying, ‘Let’s write a book.’ There are lots of ways to approach a problem. There are times when you get two or three months into a design and start wondering if you need to scrap or just recast it.”

The three men persisted, obtaining a Gillings Innovation grant in 2008 to help support their efforts. It took “eight or nine iterations,” but by 2009, they had a fully functional prototype with a self-contained incubator and the capability for more sensitivity than the repurposed electrostatic precipitator would have allowed. The device was now the size of a large suitcase. They called it “The Gillings Device,” and its completion mandated the next improvisation: entrepreneurism.

“This was something completely new for me,” Vizuete says. “I’d never started a company.”

He decided to take a new UNC class for entrepreneurial-minded faculty and staff members and students called “Launching the Venture.” There he met Dr. Don Rose, director of Carolina Kick- Start, a program designed to help support UNC faculty members in their entrepreneurial efforts.

“[Vizuete and team] ended up being the first venture we formally supported, and they’ve quickly become a poster child for the program,” Rose says. “They had a great product. We helped them take the steps toward becoming a viable venture, from assisting them with patents, corporate structure and other legal issues to pairing them with a great chief executive officer, Chris Price.”

The fledgling company, named BioDeptronix, garnered nearly $250,000 in support, including $150,000 from the National Institutes of Health and $50,000 from the National Science Foundation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has registered strong interest in purchasing the first commercial rendition of the product.

“I’m very happy and grateful that there are people like Dennis Gillings and Joan Gillings who contribute to programs such as the Gillings Innovation Labs, which can support development and translation of science to beneficial products,” Sexton says. “I’m also grateful that the School and UNC are supportive of such funding programs.”

Rose sees the process as a natural outgrowth of research predicated upon direct response to a pressing societal need.

“This is a great example of researchers looking to solve a problem – which is what public health is all about – and then making that solution available for wider use,” Rose says. “[BioDeptronix’s] solution is effective. It’s cheaper, it’s portable, and it’s 10 to 100 times more sensitive than what is available now. This is a product that could develop over time and provide many people with better data. That leads, in turn, to better solutions for some pressing public health issues.”

From an idea to collaboration to focused effort, with a bit of improvising along the way, Vizuete’s career took a turn he hadn’t anticipated.

“I never thought in terms of starting a business or creating a deliverable product,” he says. “But now we’re already thinking about other uses for the device that could include partnering with other companies. We might want to increase the device’s sensitivity to account for nanomaterials or develop real-time personal samplers that could be used in homes or businesses. There are a lot of directions we can go from here.”

Sexton agrees.

“This instrument ultimately can be deployed and used in homes, as well as other buildings and workplaces.”

In some ways, it’s a lot like a good jazz riff. So many new ideas are just waiting to waft off the original one. All it takes is talented players, hard work and a good sense of improvisation when the right moments come along.
–David Pesci


  • Harvey Jeffries, PhD, is professor emeritus of environmental sciences and engineering (ESE) at the Gillings School.
  • David Leith, PhD, is a retired ESE research professor.
  • Don Rose, PhD, director of Carolina KickStart (, received his bachelor’s degree in nutrition from the Gillings School.
  • Kenneth Sexton, PhD, is a retired research professor of ESE.
  • Will Vizuete, PhD, is associate professor of ESE.
  • Glenn Walters, PhD, is director of the ESE Design Center and an ESE research associate.


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