By Jenna Ros


Christy Haynes looks at some of the world’s smallest things and sees solutions to big problems.

Under this University of Minnesota chemist’s microscope, the whispers of platelets reveal treatments for patients whose blood won’t clot. Tiny particles, if heated just right, promise new ways to kill cancerous tumours.

Haynes is also puzzling over what some scholars have called “the dearth of women in maths-intensive fields.” To tackle that one, she is again starting small — with herself.

In the laboratory of one of the country’s major research universities, on a show on public television and in the pages of Popular Science, she is using her work to inspire young women to don lab goggles.

“I recognise that I don’t look like a traditional chemist as most people picture him,” Haynes said. “I think it matters a lot when you see somebody who looks like you doing the work you imagine.”

This autumn, Popular Science anointed the 35-year-old associate professor one of the magazine’s “Brilliant 10,” a group of “geniuses shaking up science today.” The mainstream mention adds to national US honours within the scientific community for her wide-ranging work tracking platelets, nanoparticles and allergic reactions.

She views the awards with the practical approach that has defined her research: They serve a larger purpose.

Haynes recently weaved through the cluster of basement rooms that make up her research lab, giving a new graduate student the tour. Microscopes, lasers, shakers. But the highlight was the researchers. Haynes checked in with each one.

“How’s it going?” she asked Melissa Maurer-Jones, who was wearing goggles, a white coat and an anxious look. For a minute, their heads drew in toward each other, closer to the work, before Haynes remembered it was time to move on.

She unlocked the next door, then paused.

“We’ll just peek in, because this is a sterile facility,” she said. “Not many chemistry groups have a cell culture room, but we do.”

The research group’s work has delved deeply, and somewhat unexpectedly, into biology. Popular Science praised their first-of-its-kind measurement of individual platelets, tiny little nucleus-free cells that are notoriously difficult to pin down.

Haynes’ research group got them, though, and have since been using that technology to reveal how platelets communicate, and how cholesterol, drugs and disease change that conversation. They’ve studied the blood of rabbits, cows and humans. Camels next, if the zoo would just OK it.

“It’s not that we’re interested in camel stuff,” Haynes said, “but when you start thinking about what makes a platelet a platelet, it’s interesting to compare.”

Their work is being tapped by specialists to help fashion new treatments for platelet disorders. One of Haynes’ PhD candidates loved the research so much that she will do her post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School, an uncommon route for a chemist.

Many women faculty “tend toward science that is more deliverable and less fundamental,” she said, and sometimes get criticised for that. But people who work with Haynes praise her approach.

“She knows how to pick important problems and attack them in practical ways,” said professor John Bischof, a mechanical engineer. “There are people who take a more refined or more esoteric approach. But it might not scale up. It might not translate to the clinic.”

Haynes, who grew up in Phoenix, worked as a bank teller in high school. She was good at it — funny, social and strangely adept at spotting fraud. Her parents, who did not go to college, tried to dissuade her from giving up that gig.

“I remember them saying, ‘Why would you want to go to college? You could be a manager of the bank.’”

They refused to give her the tax documents she needed to apply for financial aid. Yet she left anyway, studying chemistry at Macalester College in St Paul. It was a sensible degree, and she planned to use it to nab a job at a company like 3M. Then, her sophomore year, a professor “blew her away” by telling her that chemistry graduate students actually get paid.

Haynes, who finished her undergraduate degree in three years to save money, suddenly considered continuing school.

Her doctoral work at Northwestern University not only jump-started her career, it revived her adviser’s.

After a big discovery, professor Richard Van Duyne’s research stalled, then crashed. He had no grants, no students. “I was thinking about finding another job,” he said. “Then she walked through the door.”

On Van Duyne’s desk sat a stack of unpublished papers. Haynes updated references, cleaned up language and submitted them. “I had been rewriting and rewriting,” he said. “She taught me that 95% is pretty good.”

She asked to present work at a conference in China. It was her first trip abroad. She asked to write a grant proposal. Procter & Gamble funded it. By the time she finished her PhD in 2003, she had co-authored 27 publications.

The University of Minnesota hired her before she had even started her post-doctoral research at the University of North Carolina. “Boy, was that a good move,” said William Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry. Her research’s firsts have put her on “a steep trajectory,” he said.

Last year, when another research university tried to lure her away, the department countered with a package featuring seed funding for a Center for Analysis of Biomolecular Signaling — plus the promise of a room with a hospital-grade breast pump.

Both were critical items for the mother of two, a 4-year-old son and an 11-month-old daughter who just won’t sleep through the night.

“Honestly, it is hard enough to find time to do it,” Haynes said. The “family care room,” which women in the department share, “makes it just a little bit easier.”

A recent article in American Scientist called “When Scientists Choose Motherhood” found that “the effect of children on women’s academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors,” including women simply preferring other fields.

Haynes had thought about teaching undergraduates at a small college like Macalester. But the statistics bothered her.

Just 13.7% of chemistry professors at the top 50 research universities are women, according to a 2010 analysis co-authored by Donna Nelson at the University of Oklahoma.

“I could sit and complain and say, ‘Why aren’t there more?’” Haynes said. “Or I could personally be a part of the change.” — Star Tribune/MCT