• Rustem Ismagilov
    Credit: J. Smith
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    Watch the October 26, 2016 lecture
    Credit: Caltech

Revolutionizing Medicine with Diagnostic Devices

On Wednesday, October 26, at 8:00 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, Rustem Ismagilov will discuss his group's innovative approach to diagnostics, including their progress toward the development of a rapid test of resistance of pathogens to antibiotics. Ismagilov is the Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and director of the Jacobs Institute for Molecular Engineering for Medicine.

What do you do?

My motto is "creativity that impacts." My goal is to make fundamental discoveries and inventions that will improve the lives of 100,000,000 people in my lifetime. I love the creativity, discovery, and razor-sharp logic of doing science and engineering. In my research lab, I am very fortunate to work with smart, creative people of all walks of science and engineering. Our first goal is to understand interactions between microbes and their mammalian host from a rigorously quantitative vantage point. Our second goal is to develop ideas and technologies that will enable quantitative, ultrasensitive molecular measurements to be done anywhere by anyone. 

Why is this important?

I believe that work at the interface of science and technology, ideas and discovery, quantitative and biology is critical to solving many global health challenges and stimulating new science. Our previous work lead to technologies currently used both as a tool in research laboratories and as a diagnostic in the clinic, for cancer patients. Furthermore, distributed ultrasensitive molecular measurements would enable the diagnosis and monitoring of the treatment of viral infections, including approximately 30,000,000 people with HIV and about 150,000,000 people with HCV; detecting antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, representing 2,000,000 infections and about 23,000 deaths annually just in the U.S.; monitoring the emergence of pandemics; and enabling new types of therapeutic clinical trials. By working to solve these grand challenges, we often identify gaps in our understanding and therefore generate fascinating new fundamental questions.

How did you get into this line of work?

I think I was born a scientist. I like to operate on the edge of what is possible. The worst advice I have ever been given is "work on what you know."

I have been on a quest for intellectual engagement since I was a child. My first experiment was a meticulous study of melting transitions of lead–tin alloys used in different fishing weights. I was 7 years old and I still have the burn mark on my arm. I love thinking. I love inventing and learning how things work. I was lucky to grow up in Ufa, a Soviet city closed to foreigners and open to cold wintry air coming down from the Urals. I was lucky to have only two TV channels, with "documentaries" on the superiority of Soviet collective farms on one, and with yet-another funeral of a Politburo member on the other. I was lucky to have few superficial distractions, and instead was immersed into an environment that valued intellectual pursuit and demanded creativity: from reading through my parents' 2,000-plus books, to playing chess with friends, to learning from a neighbor how to diagnose and fix a leaking carburetor using dental powder and a piece of vinyl. As a child, I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who supported my interests. As an adult, I was fortunate to have inspiring research mentors—the late Professor Emmanuil Trojansky, Professor Stephen Nelsen who has since retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Professor George Whitesides of Harvard—who taught me how to do research by giving candid feedback and by letting me figure things out and sometimes fail in the process. I am fortunate to have my colleagues who provide the stimulating and honest intellectual environment Caltech is famous for.

Written by Lori Dajose