Combatting the Diversity-Innovation Paradox in Science: An Interview with Herek Clack, Chief Scientific Officer, Taza Aya

By JLABS
Articles

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Herek Clack_Taza Aya

What if you could achieve the safety of social distancing, without masks? Herek Clack has been working with the aim to solve some of today’s most pressing challenges—since before much of the world understood they were dire, with 25 years of experience conducting research on droplets and aerosols. Most recently, his company, Taza Aya, participated in and was named an awardee in the Invisible Shield QuickFire Challenge, a collaboration between Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS, working with Janssen Research & Development, LLC, and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development (BARDA), a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to crowdsource ideas for potential solutions that repel and protect against airborne viruses while integrating seamlessly into everyday life. As a QuickFire Challenge awardee, Taza Aya received funding from BARDA, access to the Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS ecosystem, and mentorship from BARDA and experts at the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies for one year.

From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to an American rocket engine company, Herek joins us today to talk about his experiences in the life sciences world and his perspective on diversity in science and research, as well as some shocking adversity he’s overcome to get where he is today.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your career and how you got to where you are?

HC: I worked for five years in between undergrad school (MIT, aerospace engineering) and graduate school (University of California Berkeley, mechanical engineering). This was beneficial for several reasons. First, working on space engine/space propulsion systems helped me see for myself in which subdisciplines my true inner strengths lie. By working at Rocketdyne (at the time, a division of Rockwell International), I was able to "find my [engineering] voice" within the specializations and topics I was learning and using there – topics with applications beyond aerospace propulsion. Second, while working there, I witnessed how the more cutting-edge projects almost always required engineers with an advanced degree. For much of my time at Rocketdyne, I was the exception to that rule—often finding myself as the only engineer with only a B.S. degree working on those projects. This was my primary motivation for moving on to graduate study: I wanted to maintain the ability to access those advanced engineering projects and programs. In graduate school, I was able to see how my skills and technical intuition acquired at Rocketdyne were just as useful in other disciplines outside of propulsion.

This broader experience lent itself to what I call my "toolkit": those seemingly innate skills, and the seemingly innate knowledge that can be carried with you across disciplines and technical projects. My toolkit of skills and experiences has afforded me with a lot of professional flexibility, which is nice to have.

Q: Have you had to overcome any barriers navigating race in the workplace?

HC: Yes, obstacles to avoid or overcome have always been present. Looking back, many were a variation of discounting my contributions or denying that my own experiences “actually happened”— and they could be racially prejudiced in intent or trafficking in racist tropes. A few barriers I’ve faced fall into a category of their own: While temporarily assigned to a project at a remote location, I was shot at; but fortunately, unharmed by either the bullet or the flying glass that shattered.

More recently, as an academic of color, I've become acutely aware of the risk to pursuing one's own research agenda if it is, perhaps, at the margins of the research focus prioritized in the given field. Research has shown that scientists of color tend to be more innovative in their research agenda, but their innovations are less valued and experience slower/lesser uptake by the scientific community–exacting a professional toll on the innovators.  

However, it must be said that throughout all of this, I still had fantastic friends, work colleagues and supervisors whose support was important—sometimes pivotal—along the way.   

Q: What a journey it’s been for you. Our paths collided when you applied for and ultimately was awarded the Invisible Shield QuickFire Challenge through our collaboration with BARDA. What do you feel is the importance of your technology to combat today’s current health situation? 

HC: Gaining access to mentorship from experts at the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and BARDA through the Invisible Shield QuickFire Challenge helps us to focus on the needs of patients today and anticipate the needs of the world for the future. Although the Invisible Shield QuickFire Challenge was conceived well before the emergence of COVID-19, the award was conferred as the pandemic gripped the world. Prior to 2020, much of the motivation behind Taza Aya was hypotheticals. But much of our work today constitutes a reality with which everyone is familiar. First, we all have witnessed the challenges of conventional face masks—from public compliance with mask mandates, to conveying what aerosols are, to the benefits and protection of different face masks. And we know firsthand that the best-performing masks come with a host of challenges, including being in short supply and built for single-use; can be hard to breathe through; are sized only for adults and lose virtually all of their protective effect if not fitted properly to the wearer's face; and risk deforming or slipping on the wearer's face as they absorb moisture.

Taza Aya’s Direct Air Treatment Module (DATM) aspires to be the next level of pathogen protection by aiming to reliably and effectively remove and inactivate pathogens. The DATM can be scaled to HVAC format or used as a wearable device. It works in an instant, is low power and compact. (Source: https://taza-aya.com/).

Q: What black man or woman in history—living or historic—do you admire most?

HC: I admire every black parent throughout history, who incessantly urged their children to further their education. Through education and knowledge, our ancestors have escaped conditions that are now unimaginable, but which have been the pattern and thread making up the American fabric since its beginning. Through education, we continue to rise up to break down barriers today.

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We respect your perseverance and ingenuity aimed at improving your community and global health, Herek!

Are you also on the frontlines of innovation working to improve health security? We encourage you to explore our growing BLUE KNIGHT™ community, a joint initiative with BARDA based at JLABS @ Washington, DC. To learn more or apply to potentially gain access to cross-sector resources and mentorship from the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies and BARDA, visit: https://jlabs.jnjinnovation.com/blue-knight

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