Making a Midlife Change, to Academia

Making a sharp change in career direction can make for tough decisions. And for scientists who are already accomplished and esteemed, the decisions can be even tougher. Esther Takeuchi was content and widely respected as chief scientist at Greatbatch Inc. in Clarence, New York, but in September 2007, after 22 years with the medical-components manufacturer, she left to become a professor of engineering at the University at Buffalo (UB), part of the State University of New York system.

Takeuchi took the post at UB after much soul-searching on her part and convincing by university officials. Eventually, the chance to set her own agenda and explore new research interests–and be better positioned to encourage more women to enter science and engineering fields–outweighed the benefits of staying at Greatbatch. Another incentive was the chance to apply the business skills she developed over the years in an academic context while continuing to collaborate with industry.

A distinguished (first) career

Takeuchi is hardly a stranger to UB. She took a postdoc position there when her husband, Kenneth Takeuchi, joined the university’s chemistry faculty in 1983, a position he holds to this day. A year later, after completing the postdoc, she joined Greatbatch as a chemist.

Despite these connections, Takeuchi’s signing is an important development for UB. Takeuchi holds 134 patents, more than any other woman in the United States. Her best known invention is the lithium/silver vanadium oxide battery used in the implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, which monitors and corrects irregular heart rhythms. Her work helped Greatbatch grow from a family owned enterprise with $2.5 million in sales in 1984–the year she joined the company–to a listing on the New York Stock Exchange and more than $300 million in sales expected in 2007. It also earned her wide recognition, including a Woman of Distinction citation from the American Association of University Women and memberships in both the National Academy of Engineering (where she is one of only 100 women) and the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame.

Taking the work in new directions

At UB, Takeuchi looks forward to carving out a new scientific agenda in a professorship newly and jointly created by the electrical engineering department and the department of chemical and biological engineering. At Greatbatch, customer requirements drove the company’s research in chemistry and chemical engineering. “We were always, always focused on what does the market need, what do the customers want, how can we better provide products for the customer,” Takeuchi says.

She expects the university environment to offer opportunities for more basic research than her previous setting allowed. “Scientifically and intellectually, being at a university, there is tremendous freedom and latitude to pursue projects that are interesting to you and that you think have some future,” Takeuchi says. She plans to use that freedom to continue her research on power sources, but her focus will now be on new materials and on gaining a “better understanding of fundamental mechanisms of synthetic and electrochemical processes.”

Although Takeuchi expects to conduct more basic research than she did in her industrial post, she intends to maintain close links to the applied-research community, and by extension, clinical practitioners. Taking her business skill of translating customer requirements into deliverable products or services, she is particularly interested in working with UB’s medical school to link her new research work to physicians’ therapy strategies. Her research on power sources, she says, combined with complementary efforts in the university’s computer science and electrical engineering departments, should offer opportunities for important work in biomedical engineering. “[I]f we can bring those entities together and develop some new concepts, there may be an opportunity to do broader projects on a larger scale.”

Leading by example: 1

The chance to encourage more women to enter engineering is another reason she joined the UB faculty. “For a long time now, I’ve been very interested in bringing more people, particularly underrepresented [populations] and women, into what they call the STEM professions”: science, technology, engineering, and math. Her appointment alone, she says, has “doubled the ranks of female full professors in electrical engineering [at UB], and in chemical engineering, I’m the only [female] full professor there.” Takeuchi plans to play a part in the university’s new department of biomedical engineering, which she calls a “magnet to draw additional female engineers into the university” because it is one of the few engineering fields that attracts larger numbers of women.

Takeuchi serves on school and museum boards in Buffalo and has used these positions to upgrade and develop programs that encourage young women to consider careers in science and technology. But a university such as UB, she thinks, offers a better platform for that sort of work because it allows her to be a visible role model for students. She anticipates working with students at all levels, which should provide many mentoring opportunities.

“If you look at the field of engineering,” says Satish Tripathi, UB’s provost and chief academic officer, “interest on the female side has gone down in the past few years. So we need to get some role models.” Best of all is “somebody who is really accomplished like her who can also mentor both the junior faculty as well as the undergraduate and graduate students,” Tripathi says.

An extended courtship

Takeuchi’s recruitment by UB is partly a consequence of the university’s efforts to become a leading academic center in bioinformatics and bioengineering, fields that draw on nanotechnology, life sciences, and computer science. Having those plans in place, Tripathi says, made Takeuchi’s recruitment both advisable and feasible: “If you think about a candidate to jump-start some of those things we are trying to do, Esther would be right on the top.” There were other reasons why Takeuchi fit UB’s needs. “She is definitely somebody who could bring visibility to UB, … and if you look at her industrial experience, with the number of patents and what she has done, she is known all over the world.” In addition to being a well-regarded scholar and researcher, she is “somebody who can take the research and have [practical] applications benefit from that.”

Happy in her old job, Takeuchi took a long time to make what she describes as wrenching decisions. One factor was her determination to maintain a good relationship with her former employer. She needn’t have worried. “I wrestled with the decision, and I talked to [the Greatbatch chief executive officer] before making the decision, … [who] said, ‘As much as we would like you to stay, if this is an exciting opportunity for you, then don’t think we’re going to hold it against you.’ ” Takeuchi has a 16-month consulting agreement with the company, and Greatbatch endowed Takeuchi’s professorship at UB for 5 years, supporting her research from 2008 through 2012. Tripathi puts the value of this endowment at a half-million dollars.

Leading by example: 2

Amy Marschilok, who earned her chemistry Ph.D. from UB in 2004, worked with Takeuchi at Greatbatch after getting her degree. Marschilok moved to UB in September as an assistant research professor. Much of her research will be conducted jointly with Takeuchi, on new materials for batteries used in implantable biomedical devices.

Although Takeuchi was two levels above Marschilok in the Greatbatch hierarchy, she still had an impact on the latter’s career. “Esther is an outstanding role model,” Marschilok says. “Her technical knowledge and expertise are really impressive. … She’s very insightful in finding ways to address challenges that arise, finding new solutions to problems.” But there’s more to it than technical smarts. “One of the things that has always impressed me about Esther is she leads with confidence, and she has a real sense of calm about her, regardless of what’s happening,” Marschilok says. A sense of confident leadership comes in handy in the medical-device business, she adds, where the technology is used for saving lives.

Takeuchi herself is looking forward to doing things differently while carrying forward the lessons she has learned in 22 years as a scientist. “The one thing you can control [in your career] is what you do. What you can’t control is when and if opportunities present themselves. So my approach has been always be ready, always be prepared for opportunities when they present themselves. Because then, the decision is yours.”

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