•SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR•
Clarise Starr, Ph.D.
Deputy Chief of Applied Technology
& Genomics Division, Aeromedical
Research Department, U.S. Air Force
School of Aerospace Medicine
U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory
B.S., Biology, University of Texas at San Antonio;
Ph.D., Microbiology and Immunology, University of Michigan
It was a life changing experience on a trip to Nigeria after her undergraduate degree that motivated Dr. Clarise Starr to dedicate her life to biomedical research. After she tragically witnessed a baby die from malaria, she knew that helping to fight infectious diseases would be her life’s mission. Today, as the Deputy Division Chief of the Applied Technology and Genomics Division of the Aeromedical Research Department at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, part of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Dr. Starr is advancing the field of biomedical science in incredible ways that she could have scarcely imagined back when she was growing up in the small Texas town of Sinton.
Working out of a lab at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, her current role requires both an extraordinary scientific mind as well as exemplary leadership skills as a Supervisory Biological Scientist and Lead Principal Investigator helping protect the nation — and our military forces in particular — from the threats of bioterrorism. As a recognized expert in dealing with some of the most lethal infectious agents known to exist, her job is not for the faint of heart.
Dr. Starr’s original inspiration to become a scientist started when she was a child growing up in Sinton, Texas, a small town of about 5,000 people on the outskirts of Corpus Christi. A love of animals and an innate curiosity about how things grew drew her to biology. “I wanted to know why plants mutated, why flowers looked different,” she recalls, “so biology came very naturally to me.”
By sixth grade she decision that she wanted to harness her passion for biology to help people, a decision she carried with her to the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dr. Starr excelled at UTSA as part of their honors program, which was relatively new at the time and afforded its students smaller class sizes and the kind of one on one mentorships similar programs at larger universities couldn’t. She also had access to labs that would have been difficult to get at other schools.
It was after earning her B.S. in Biology with honors from UTSA that she made her fateful trip to Nigeria. When she returned she went back to work in the school’s lab, and her mentor funneled a graduate school application to Dr. Starr through her roommate. But it would require this small town girl to move out of her comfort zone – and out of state.
“It was for a new biomedical sciences Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and it might as well have been the moon or Mars,” she recalls. Moving from the tiny comforting confines of Sinton to attend U.T. San Antonio two hours away was one thing. Going to a from South Texas to a state that shares a border with Canada was quite another.
The culture shock alone was considerable for Dr. Starr. “I nearly drowned,” she recalled. In addition to the much colder weather, she had to deal with the competition from classmates who were from very prestigious universities like Yale and MIT, and that that made her feel out of place. “It was mostly me, in my head,” she remembers, “and there were lots of mental challenges like that I had to overcome.”
Her first year was particularly difficult. She struggled to maintain a C average, which initially left her relieved. She was mortified when she learned, however, that the University of Michigan’s graduate school treated Cs like a Ds. This landed her on academic probation for a time, something she actually credits with helping her focus. She doubled her determination and through the help of a strong mentor got back on track, particularly when her coursework turned to microbiology, a subject she had long been interested in.
“I always knew I wanted to work with the really really scary things,” Dr. Starr says with a light-hearted but confident laugh. “I don’t quite know why, but I remember reading about infectious prions and other viruses that can kill people really quickly, and thinking how cool it would be study that!”
It was while moonlighting in the clinical microbiology lab at Michigan for a time that Dr. Starr had an epiphany that would firmly set her career on course. She realized that the first line of defense against deadly diseases was detection. “We have to figure out exactly what virus or pathogen an afflicted patient has before we can formulate a combat plan,” she says.
During her time at the clinical lab, Dr. Starr also realized that the methods in use to try to detect these pathogens were not as effective as they could be. She sensed an opening and knew she could have an impact on the science of detection.
“We can all appreciate being sick, and not knowing what’s making us sick,” she explains, “and traditional medicine focuses on what we know.” As anyone who’s been to a doctor’s office can attest, you must first tell them what your symptoms are, and based on those known factors, doctors have to order a specific test for a specific virus they suspect may be the culprit.
“But what happens when that test comes back negative?” Dr. Starr asks rhetorically. “What next? We [the medical community] decided we needed to begin focusing more on the unknown, not the known, and it completely shook up the entire way we were dealing with detection.”
By exploring and utilizing the emerging science of genomics, Dr. Starr’s research promises to completely flip the way viruses and other pathogens are detected. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go to the doctors and submit a sample and have the test tell you what’s in it, rather than having to run down a list of what’s known and test for each suspected pathogen one at a time?” she asks. That wouldn’t just nice. It would be revolutionary.
After completing her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology, her first thought was to become a clinical microbiologist. Unfortunately, training programs to turn Ph.D.’s into clinical biologists were fading away at the time. She found more opportunities to pursue her passion at government labs and chose to work for the Department of Defense because they were looking for someone doing the kind of work she was already working on – identifying pathogens.
Dr. Starr started as a researcher and has moved up the ranks to her current leadership position at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson AFB. One of her biggest challenges as a young scientist came when she was asked to help develop a portable diagnostic instrument for the detection of biological weapons that could only weigh a few ounces and had to work without a heating or cooling source. Her idea to use the human body as a heat source for the device was the unexpected breakthrough that demonstrated how her out of the box thinking led to innovation.
Dr. Starr also introduced advances in the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) for pathogen detection and identification which eventually launched a new generation of portable diagnostic instruments for pathogen identification. In 2009, only four years removed from her graduation, she was instrumental in the initial identification of a new H1N1 swine flu outbreak. During this public health crisis, she and her colleagues came up with her driving inspiration to be able to identify any pathogen from any material using next-generation gene sequencing and advanced bioinformatics.
The turn towards genomics in biomedical research led to Dr. Starr and her team founding the first genomics research lab in the Air Force. Soon they were the first in the Air Force to sequence the human genome and subsequently discovered many unique pathogens using the advanced lab and analytic techniques. Her leadership has grown to match her research excellence. She has evolved from a project lead to a program manager to a team supervisor and now to the Deputy Division Chief for a $13 million lab.
Dr. Starr is recognized as the Air Force’s leading subject matter expert in Microbiology, Biosafety, and advanced laboratory management. Additionally, she influences Department of Defense (DoD) strategy, policy, requirements, and programs as an Air Force representative to many DoD working groups. She has authored or co-authored dozens of technical publications and has received multiple Thomas Wells Senior Leader of the Year Awards and Civilian of the Quarter Awards. She is also a member of the American Society of Microbiology.
She is a leader in STEM outreach as well, hosting 6 to 12 students and interns every summer. AFRL has recognized her with awards for her mentoring and has awarded her STEM grants. She assists local schools with the judging of science fairs, lectures, and even unique ‘show and tell’. Since 2003, Dr. Starr has been a member and active participant in the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science. In 2017, Sinton High School (85% Hispanic) awarded her Alumni of the Year for her career accomplishments, and she continues to maintain deep relationships with her hometown.
With all of her accomplishments, Dr. Starr also splits her work duties with her role as a wife and mother, a responsibility that helps motivate her in her work fighting the battle against ever-mutating, treatment-resistant pathogens and advancing the frontiers of data-based genomic science and synthetic biology. It is a battle that may someday help humanity in the fight against the next plague of infectious disease by the use of mass-produced laboratory-developed synthetic DNA rather than the much slower process of developing vaccines and anti-bodies using the traditional methods.