Power Source

The renowned lithium battery researcher Esther Takeuchi brings her considerable energy and creativity to UB after a trailblazing career in industry

Story by Nicole Peradotto : Photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89

“My father involved me in everything,” says Takeuchi. “He never put any boundaries on me. I never heard words like, ‘Girls do that and boys do the other thing.’ It was always, ‘You’re capable of anything.’”(Photo by Douglas Levere BA '89)

ESTHER TAKEUCHI was raised in a family that didn’t believe in distinguishing between girls’ chores and boys’ chores. Although she grew up during the 1950s and early 1960s—eras when the division of labor in most homes was as clearly demarcated along gender lines as a white picket fence along property lines—it was nothing unusual for her to help her dad change a car tire or replace an electrical switch.

“My father involved me in everything,” says Takeuchi. “He never put any boundaries on me. I never heard words like, ‘Girls do that and boys do the other thing.’ It was always, ‘You’re capable of anything.’”

He may not have realized it at the time, but in encouraging all that tinkering, Rudolf Sans was laying the foundation for his youngest child’s career. Over the past 25 years, Takeuchi has tackled projects far more ambitious than faulty light switches. Renowned for her lithium battery research, she’s credited with, among other accomplishments, leading the development of an efficient battery for the implantable defibrillator, the device that shocks the heart back to normal rhythm during a heart attack.

For her achievements, Takeuchi has received widespread recognition in the scientific community. In 2004, she was awarded the highest honor accorded an engineer with her induction into the National Academy of Engineering. Within that elite association of 2,415 engineers, she’s one of only about 100 female members.

What’s more, the scientist from Akron, OH—home of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, incidentally—is considered to be one of the world’s most prolific female inventors. In fact, she’s believed to have more patents than any other woman.

“I think at last count it was 139,” Takeuchi says, “but the number keeps climbing.”

Takeuchi’s next round of experiments will take place in a five-room lab in UB’s Furnas Hall. After more than two decades at the Clarence-based medical device manufacturer Greatbatch Inc., she joined UB’s faculty last fall. Her former employer funded a professorship for her, in both the chemical and biological engineering and the electrical engineering departments, with a $500,000 gift to support Takeuchi’s research in the fields of power and biomedical research.

The decision to leave industry for academia was not made without hand-wringing, the 54-year-old scientist admits. After serving as the chief scientist of a company that grew from a small, family-owned outfit to a business listed on the New York Stock Exchange, with $270 million in annual sales, her devotion to Greatbatch runs deep.

And then there was the work. As the head of battery research and development, Takeuchi led teams responsible for designing and developing the battery technology for the defibrillator, the pacemaker, drug-delivery devices and neurostimulators. For millions of patients recovering from stroke, with Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, diabetes, chronic pain, hearing loss and other debilitating conditions, it’s life-changing technology.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the work we did made a difference,” she says. “If the battery doesn’t work, the whole device doesn’t work.”

And still, even at the peak of this trailblazing career, the prospect of forging a path on the academic expanse was too tempting for Takeuchi to pass up. “I just found it so exciting to be able to contemplate things that in a company are considered a little bit too far afield or too high-risk,” says the Greatbatch Professor of Advanced Power Sources.

“Companies have to focus on what’s directly consistent with their mission, whereas at universities you can be far-out creative. If you can get funding to underwrite it, you can do anything. It’s that freedom that’s exciting.”

In her still-unfinished lab on UB’s North Campus, Takeuchi surveys the X-ray powder diffraction unit, the centrifuge and the other equipment that she and the four graduate students she supervises will soon use. When it’s pointed out that the blue tile floor seems uncharacteristically bright for a lab, Takeuchi notes that she chose it herself. “Students like working in a cheerful environment as opposed to some hovel.”

Although she hasn’t had the opportunity to start running experiments yet, Takeuchi has been busy laying the groundwork. In her mission to tackle broad, system-wide problems, she’s collaborating with colleagues within and outside her departments. At the medical school, for example, she plans to embark on projects aimed at improving battery efficacy for diagnostic devices.

“People have been really willing and interested to jump in to new projects to solve problems on a bigger scale,” says Takeuchi, who will teach a course on electrochemical power sources—that is, batteries—during the 2008–09 academic year. “UB has been a great environment for this.”

For their part, UB officials and administrators are thrilled to have such an industry giant in the campus fold. Takeuchi’s appointment is expected to strengthen ties between the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the biotech industry, including Greatbatch, whose scientists will continue to work closely with her.

The dean of that school describes Takeuchi as a “passionate and committed” scientist. “Her long history of experience in industry will bring a different and positive perspective to the research strategies that we have,” says Harvey G. Stenger Jr. “She’s pursuing a long line of projects already, and she has the intellectual capacity to handle all of them at once. She’s always thinking, and she’s always trying to help.”

No stranger to UB, Takeuchi was a postdoctoral research associate in electrochemistry here during the early 1980s, as well as at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received her PhD in organic chemistry from the Ohio State University and a BA with a double major in chemistry and history from the University of Pennsylvania.

Takeuchi attributes her pragmatism in large part to her parents, first-generation Latvian immigrants. From a young age, she learned the value of looking at problems from different angles. Her father, an electrical engineer at Goodyear Aerospace, taught her how to read by sounding out letters rather than recognizing patterns, the common pedagogical method of that day. “He didn’t have total faith in the educational system, so he decided that he was going to intervene,” she says.

Several years later, he tutored her in algebra because he was unsatisfied with her high school teacher’s approach. “He didn’t think it was enough to just solve the equation; you needed to know how to set up the equation. So we spent a lot of time going through word problems that were in the book, or sometimes he would make up problems—‘if this, then that,’ and how you would figure out what to do.”

In a home where problem-solving was encouraged both on paper and in practice, it was only natural that Takeuchi would make it her life’s work.

“I’m really driven by curiosity,” she says. “A lot of times, people who aren’t scientists don’t realize the level of creativity and novelty that’s involved in scientific experiments. By trying something new, by looking at a problem in a different way, by making new materials, you really are doing things that no one has ever done before. That part of it is fascinating—and fun.”

Those who work with Takeuchi acknowledge her creativity as one of her many standout qualities. “One of the first words that comes to mind when I think of Esther is ‘innovative,’” says Amy Marschilok, research assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “She has a great characteristic of being able to see the big picture and see new and creative ways to tackle challenging problems.”

Marschilok, PhD ’04 & BA ’99, met Takeuchi through Takeuchi’s husband, Kenneth, a UB chemistry professor who served as Marschilok’s PhD adviser. After working summers at Greatbatch, Marschilok was hired there full time upon receiving her PhD. In 2007, she moved over to UB with her mentor.

“In engineering there is definitely still a lack of women in the field and a lack of women role models,” Marschilok says. “At Greatbatch, I was fortunate to observe how Esther managed her group and led people. As a woman, it was empowering to see somebody you can relate to in a personal way having such an impact.”

Indeed, encouraging women in the sciences is another reason Takeuchi was attracted to UB. A member of the boards of the Buffalo Museum of Science and the all-girl high school Sacred Heart Academy, she’s committed to causes that increase the ranks of women in the STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“It’s clear to me that if we take the very old position model—that science and math are dominated by men—then the numbers of participants in technology will become very small,” she says. “By involving women in the math and sciences, not only do we have the opportunity to increase those numbers, but we have the opportunity to bring new perspectives into the field.

“This is certainly a personal mission,” Takeuchi adds, “but I think that it’s a mission that’s important for our nation’s success.”

When asked of her experience as a woman in a male-dominated field, Takeuchi contemplates the question for a moment. “Was that disparity problematic? I don’t really know. Has my career been any more difficult than anybody else’s? It’s hard for me to say. Certainly the field is still very male-dominated. It’s apparent at every conference and at every meeting. So, you just do your best and keep going.”

And going and going and going …

Whether in an industry lab, an academic setting—and, yes, still at home—Takeuchi always gets a charge out of getting to the heart of the matter.

“When you experience the things that I did as a child, you’re just not intimidated by problems,” she says. “You develop an ability to look at things and think about how they must work. In fact, my husband to this day laughs at me because he knows that I’m fearless about taking things apart.

“And most of the time,” she adds, “I get them put back together.”

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a Buffalo-based freelance writer/editor.