Barb Larsen: Master of Fitness for Purpose
Industry or academia? That’s the choice faced by every newly graduated PhD. Barbara Larsen decided upon industry mostly because she considers herself an applied rather than theoretical scientist — she is driven by customer solutions rather than theories.
Now, after 30-odd years in industry, Larsen admits that “it wasn’t much different from academia” in terms of being a woman in a scientific field. But at DuPont that difference took the form of inclusiveness. “When I first was hired, there weren’t many women in DuPont’s CR&D [Central Research & Development, now Science and Innovation],” she says. “My boss had to shield me from all the different committees who wanted to increase diversity by having a woman join,” she recalls. “He had to say no to some of them, ‘she has to be able to work!’”
And work Larsen did, accumulating numerous publications, accolades, and awards along the way. Her most recent: being named to the 2016 “Power List” as one of the Top 50 most influential women in the analytical sciences by The Analytical Scientist magazine. Primarily known for her pioneering work in the field of mass spectrometry — or the measurement of molecular masses within compounds — Larsen recently developed a novel automated extraction method for an impurity present in certain fluorinated polymers, known appropriately enough as the “Larsen Method.” The Larsen Method is not only used within DuPont to demonstrate product safety of products prior to commercial release, but has also been adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and all of its contract research organizations.
Last year, Larsen was also awarded DuPont’s Pederson Medal for outstanding scientific achievement and technical excellence in delivering value to the customers. She is an active member in scientific societies, and has edited three books and written more than 60 peer-reviewed articles.
Larsen’s passion centers on “fitness for purpose”: ensuring that the very best separation techniques are matched with mass spectrometers with appropriate resolution, mass accuracy, and sensitivity. In other words: using the right tools for the job. “This is critical to providing accurate and precise data, whether you are elucidating a structure or quantitating an active ingredient in a product,” she says.
Game Changing Moment
A pivotal moment in Larsen’s career came back in the 1990s when she realized what would be possible in her field given emerging measurement equipment and techniques. “With much of the instrumentation prior to then, you had the challenge of getting your sample — whatever form it was — from the atmosphere into a vacuum so you could detect it,” she says. With new instrumentation and ionization techniques, the process was much simpler, and she could suddenly see things that simply weren’t visible before. “The ‘Wow!’ moment was that I could see down to the level of molecules and fragments and actually put together structures in a way that no one else could,” she says. “I knew we had a game changer on our hands.”
Larsen today is able to foresee a time when physicians will be able to have instruments in their offices to perform real-time analyses. For example, doctors could immediately make accurate diagnoses of bacterial infections rather than waiting for results to come back from a remote lab.
Having had the benefit of several strong mentors in her career, Larsen is a big believer in “giving forward” in the same way. “When we hire new people into my organization, we actually assign them a mentor, and I have been approached — particularly by young women — to act in that role many times.” Larsen is also frequently asked to participate in lunchtime brown-bag sessions at DuPont to give advice to younger colleagues, and has been regularly invited to universities to talk to grad students on how to pursue their careers while balancing work and family.
What would she like her legacy at DuPont to be? “I’d like to be known as someone who was proactive and forward-thinking in terms of making sure the appropriate technology was available for the next measurement that needed to be made,” she says. “And in that way, to be instrumental in helping DuPont address whatever challenges it faces in the future.”