CORVALLIS - One of the pioneers of the biotechnology industry recently told a group of students at Oregon State University that they were "living in the right time, at the right place, and in the right discipline, poised on the brink of great discoveries to advance the human condition."
Barry Willis, a 1963 OSU alumnus with an undergraduate degree in chemistry, spoke to students enrolled in general chemistry at OSU, and during his visit was honored as a 2004 Alumni Fellow, an honor presented by the OSU Alumni Association.
Following graduation from OSU and doctoral studies at Purdue University, Willis began his career at Hewlett Packard as a project engineer. Within a year, he had filed patents on multiple instruments, including the mass sensitive particle analyzer and the first diode array spectrophotometer, a pattern of invention he continued for nearly 20 years.
His research laboratory also contributed to automated cardiac monitoring, automated defibrillation and infarct detection instruments, ultrasound imaging, magnetic resonance imaging, many analytical and microfluidic flow systems, and automated chemical analysis, including the tools to analyze DNA and RNA for use in genotyping and expression profiling by leading-edge genomic and diagnostic tools.
By bringing together chemistry, biology, technology and computational mathematics, Willis applied ideas and principles from multiple disciplines. He bridged the gap between chemistry, molecular biology, mathematics, and medicine, and used unusual approaches to solve difficult problems. These advances led to recognition as one of the founders of the biotechnology industry, and earned him recognition from numerous professional organizations.
Willis said he attributes his accomplishments to a number of life-defining realizations that occurred, like scientific discovery, rather serendipitously.
Early in his career, Willis understood that while it was possible for a single scientist to make advances in science, solving the really tough problems in chemistry and medicine required a group of people from highly diverse backgrounds contributing to the effort. He emphasized team structures for his projects from his first days at HP.
Immersed in group work, Willis then realized the value of communication skills, networking, and marketing. He studied communication styles - how people talk and listen to each other - and the languages of various professions. He saw that networking motivated scientists to keep current in their disciplines and more knowledgeable in others. This "cross-domain" exchange also generated new ideas and unique approaches. He and his teams made special efforts to communicate the benefits of their research to other groups in marketing and business, using the terminology of those fields.
In turn, this approach widened the perspectives of his all his colleagues, to the point that business executives as well as scientists began to see the possibilities of seeking answers to medical questions by applying principles of biochemistry to an analytical process embodied in a technical tool.
Understanding the questions and opportunities posed by the Human Genome Project, applying biochemical processes using analytical tools, then restating and retesting the science ultimately led his team to more efficient ways to advance the study of genetics and fundamental mechanisms of biological processes.
"We were able to work on developing instruments needed to do this type of research because we were able to describe what a team could accomplish in terms that everyone could understand," said Willis.
Today, Willis advocates the big picture, the big vision.
He foresees revolutionary changes in medicine and communication, based on an understanding of the basic mechanisms for health and disease. He sees the potential in students, in disciplines that share knowledge, and in advances for communication and technology.
"If you can find potential behind what you're doing, it drives you to do things that you might've not thought were possible," he said.