UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2003
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Allison Campbell
Jack Walsh

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Chemistry star
Allison Campbell, Ph.D. '91, one of America's top chemists, revolutionizes joint implant surgery

By Jim Bisco

  Dr. Campbell, in her lab with model of a hip joint, concentrates her work in biomaterials.

  photo: Jackie Johnston

There was a slogan made famous some years ago, "better living through chemistry," referring to the modern conveniences that the sponsoring company developed for consumers. Allison Campbell has taken that thought to heart in her groundbreaking efforts toward developing a better quality of life for the human body.

Since earning her doctorate in physical chemistry from UB in 1991, Campbell, winner of this year's George W. Thorn Award from the UB Alumni Association, has concentrated her work in biomaterials, inventing a process that will extend the life of artificial hip and knee implants by growing a bioactive calcium phosphate layer on the implant surface. The natural bonding of this coating has been shown to reduce deterioration of the implant as happens now with the prevailing titanium alloy process, thereby saving recipients the pain and expense of further surgery. This process is being extended to dental implants and to pins used to repair broken bones.

Considering that the aging baby-boomer population is in increasing need of implants—annually an estimated 500,000 patients currently receive hip implants worldwide and 16 million Americans require dental implants—the potential impact is enormous.

Campbell pioneered the calcification process at the prestigious Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, where in 1990 she began a postdoctoral fellowship in the material sciences department. The framework for the discovery, however, was formed during her doctoral studies.

"The research I did at UB—understanding how proteins are involved in calcification—enabled me to develop the process," she relates during an interview from the W. R. Wiley Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), where she is now deputy director. EMSL is a Department of Energy national scientific user facility at PNNL. "It was the science foundation I established at UB and the subjects I focused on in my dissertation that led me to applying those principles."

Campbell's research advisor at UB was George Nancollas, Larkin Chair and SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry, who recalls her determination and leadership talent. "She is delightful," he says. "She rose more quickly than I could have guessed."

Right after she defended her thesis at UB, Campbell says she got into her car and drove cross-country to PNNL, where she started work a week later.

"The group that I was hired into had already started to develop a process for growing thin films on surfaces," she recalls. "The things that they were interested in were magnetic films, or optical coatings. I had more of an interest in the biological [area], having worked in Dr. Nancollas's group. So I took some of the things they were doing and married them with some of the things that I had learned in Dr. Nancollas's laboratory, extrapolating this process into the bioactive coatings area," she explains.

Campbell says the research project has continued in various forms over the past 10 years. She estimates that commercial application of the process is three to five years away. Bonding implanted teeth to the bone would come first, with hip, knee and shoulder applications to come later.

Discussions are currently being held with a company for licensing the technology; FDA approval is also in progress.

"The company that is interested wants me involved in the development of the technology," Campbell says. "I would like to have a hand in it as we go forward, but I am involved in other research that goes back to more of the things that I was doing when I was at UB regarding biomineralization—looking at how proteins interact with minerals to understand what's going on at the molecular level."

At 39, the chemist has already achieved many awards of distinction, culminating in being chosen one of the top 12 women in chemistry in 2002 by the American Chemical Society in conjunction with its 75th anniversary. The selection was based on young, up-and-coming, influential women chemists who are expected to make significant contributions to the field of chemistry in the early part of this century.

Campbell's rapid rise in the profession didn't begin that way. "I was a slow starter and struggled in college," recalls the Portland, Oregon native, who earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. "I had a female chemistry advisor who suggested I get out of the field because I struggled academically, but I stuck with it. And from my junior year as an undergraduate through today I haven't experienced any gender-based struggles. Dr. Nancollas has never made anybody in his lab feel that they couldn't succeed based on academic ability or gender. He has always been quite a supporter.

"Here at the [PNNL] I've always been greatly encouraged. Having said that, I know women who struggle and feel that their gender can be inhibitory to their success.

"I think there are more and more women coming into chemistry," Campbell continues. "There weren't a lot of women involved in the graduate program at UB, probably 10 to 15 percent. When I got here [PNNL], fewer than five percent were women scientists. Now it's closer to 15 percent. In the past 10 years, there has been a substantial growth in the number of young women coming into the scientific field with Ph.D.s. So, it's growing, but I think they all face their own individual challenges as their careers mature and develop. I think the national lab system is a good place to be a woman scientist."

Campbell notes that national laboratories like PNNL—which has about 2,000 individual projects in progress and funded research of a half-billion dollars—are known for their ability to bring big multidisciplinary teams together to solve large problems.

"As a scientist, the more you can understand the other person's domain and be able to communicate with that person, the better off you are in terms of really making a significant impact in scientific challenges," she observes. "Dr. Nancollas's lab is a physical chemistry laboratory, but it also has biology, inorganic chemistry and analytical chemistry components, so the environment that he has created is multidisciplinary. I think that's a really good foundation for launching students into these careers because, more and more, science is blurring the boundaries between the old domains of biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics."

Campbell's interest in medicine stems from her family. Her father is a pediatric surgeon in Portland and her mother was a medical technician at Oregon Health Sciences University. She spent a lot of time as a toddler hanging out in the lab with her mother, holding animals and watching experiments. When she became a teenager, she spent time with her father in the emergency room watching traumas come through.

"Everyone asks me why I'm not an M.D.," she allows. "It was not a conscious decision, but I think it was subconscious in that, when I was growing up, my dad was never home. I wanted my dad home. That wasn't the life I wanted to lead with my own family," she reasons. "So I think I found a nice compromise. I'm interested in the health profession, I love the science that I do, but I'm home at night."

Her interests beyond the lab are far-reaching. She has enjoyed teaching chemistry at the local college and university. Horseback riding has been a passion since the fourth grade. In fact, she represented the U.S. as an equestrienne in the Junior World Championships in 1987, and was a candidate for the U.S. Olympic equestrian team in 1988. Backpacking, mountain climbing and community activism are part of her full schedule. And she's an avid baseball fan, a huge Seattle Mariners supporter. She fondly recalls the intramural softball team formed by the UB graduate chemistry students—"We should have been in the lab, but we were out there playing ball every week"—and subway trips downtown to see the Buffalo Bisons play.

"I have nothing but fond memories of the university and the city," Campbell notes. "I loved working for Dr. Nancollas. It was at UB where I really started to flourish as a scientist."

Good chemistry, one might surmise, is a springboard to exceptional scientific achievement.

Jim Bisco is a Buffalo-area writer who has written many profiles for UB Today.

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