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Banking on community: Meet Siebel Scholar Ludovic Vincent

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the application of digital technologies is leading us to the cusp of a revolution in medicine. Siebel Scholar Ludovic Vincent (’14) finds himself right in the middle, helping to build genetic sequencing devices to make the technology easier and more accessible.
Growing up in in San Diego, a place rich with sunshine and scientific innovation, Vincent is equally at ease nurturing community in the bioengineering world and with fellow Scholars. He attended the University of Pennsylvania in bioengineering for his undergraduate studies and received his PhD in bioengineering and biomedical engineering from the University of California, San Diego. His dissertation focused on stem cell therapies and how cell-matrix interactions regulate adult stem cell migration and differentiation.
Vincent has taken his background in cell biology and surface engineering into a new field, genomics, with his current job as a scientist at Illumina, a San Diego-based genomics company.
How did you become interested in bioengineering?
I grew up in San Diego, home to one of the major US  biotech hubs. In high school, I would read the newspaper and at that time the big biotech advances were around making synthetic organs and cell printing. That sparked my interest in bioengineering for undergrad with the hope to one day work in the up and coming field of regenerative medicine. I ended up working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a summer on point of care diagnostic assays.
My senior year, I worked on a knee meniscus tissue engineering project. This was my first true experience in crossing polymer science and mechanical engineering with biology and I loved it. My graduate work focused on applied cell biology—how we can hone human cells to interact with materials for a functional benefit. Progressively, I was moving into translational medicine, with the hope to one day take research from bench to bedside.
I was particularly excited about this field given some of the seminal applications that were being published at the time. For instance,researchers were able to make pseudo cartilage. Could we then manufacture an ear? The idea you could start to use surrogate tissue to graft back onto humans was particularly interesting. At the same time there were reports of novel bladder meshes and other implantable materials for various orthopedic applications. Artificial or lab grown skins were being used to treat burn victims. As the complexity of the tissue increases, so do the challenges. So many roadblocks still stand before these engineered tissues serve more functional applications.
Why genomics?
Many of those tissue engineering technologies were promising but were 15- to 30-year technologies, so I looked around to see where else I could apply my background. I’d been working on cell-material interactions and decided to parlay that into a new career. It was serendipitous that I found a group in Illumina that was working on the surface chemistry of sequencing machines. While the application is genomics, the actual work I do today is very much ingrained in polymer and material science. It’s no longer with cells but with proteins and DNA. It’s actually a very good fit for me to work in this group.
Instead of working on a technology with a direct patient impact, our goal is to develop platforms that have a broader impact across a wide range of medicine applications and patient care. The utility to society may very well be greater to society working on genomics this decade than working on tissue engineering.
My role at Illumina focuses on the sequencing consumable, a surface on which the DNA gets multiplied and amplified so the sequencer can read it out. I’m working on improving that surface, designing it for the next generation of machines to be released in two to five years.
What are some of the challenges involved?
I worked on the iSeq, our smallest sequencer that is used by academic labs and hopefully, down the line, in point-of-care diagnostics at doctors’ offices. What was new about this device was that we moved away from using lasers, lenses and cameras for optical detection and instead placed the sequencing surface directly on top of a complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) chip.
By putting our technology directly on the CMOS chip, we take away many expensive optical components which reduces the cost of the instrument significantly. That’s very appealing for the mass market because you trade off an output while gaining simplicity and reliability. This machine can only do a fraction of a fraction of a genome, so it’s meant for targeted genomic panels, bacterial and viral sequencing.
The challenge was working on a different surface—no longer glass or plastic, but directly onto the semiconductor chip. These wafers are tremendously expensive to work with. You’re passing this salty, corrosive, liquid solution onto an electrical component. Electronics and liquids typically don’t mix well and so we had a number of large technical hurdles to overcome. We were able to solve all of these which was tremendous and showed a real commitment to this product. It took several teams many years to achieve this and I’m proud to have played a part in bringing this sequencing platform to market.
You’ve been active in networking in the Siebel Scholar community. Why is that?
The Siebel Scholars scholarship was a tremendous honor and provided a certain level of access that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Part of my desire to stay active was a drive to stay connected to people in the organization as well as up and coming leaders. I also wanted to give back. It’s worthwhile to spend a little bit of time to stay proactive and connected to the community and there’s no better way to do that than by organizing some of the events. That’s important to me.
When I went to the Siebel Scholars conference last year on cybersecurity I was able to meet people who were Siebel Scholars 3, 5, even 10  years ago coming back and wanting to be connected to the community. Having that kind of access is unusual. I couldn’t just walk out my door and meet those kind of people who are very experienced and established in their fields. There’s tremendous value there and it’s great from an intellectual curiosity perspective as well.
What are the most effective ways of building this kind of community?
I think it’s useful to reach out to people with emails or alerts through the Siebel Scholars website. But what’s most important is face-to-face, nothing replaces that. It’s the frequency of face-to-face interaction that qualifies the quality of the community in my opinion.
The events I have been involved in are really to try to foster some sense of local community for the local Scholars in the San Diego area. We host a send-off brunch with the new class of Scholars and others still living in the area. The dean of the School of Engineering attends, as well as some other key faculty members that champion the program. I also organize a more casual wine and cheese get-together that gives past scholars a chance to get together in an informal setting and get to know each other. What’s amazing is that scholars from other schools, such as Johns Hopkins or UC Berkeley who may have moved to San Diego come to our events. It's nice to network with individuals who are different in background and interests than my peers from UC San Diego.
What do you get out of it?
Some of it is access. I think it’s really neat that we’re able to pull some high-level folks such as department chairs and even the engineering dean. Scholars can come to our event and have brunch with the dean. That just doesn’t happen in graduate school when you’re down in the trenches of research.
The transition from academic life to corporate life can be hard and it’s helpful to meet the high-achieving people ahead of me, and to see what they are doing now. If I’m applying for a new position I can talk to Scholars in the field or with that company. Individuals are more likely to chat with you if you have a common bond rather than a common acquaintance or interest.
I’m banking on that access for my future jobs. I see the Siebel Scholars as a powerful tool and encourage other Scholars to be involved in their local events, and to help organize them.