During the summers, Karen Steege Gall’s mother, a first grade teacher, taught a family science course. Fourth-graders and their families would attend. Karen sat in at times too.
On the first day of class, Mrs. Steege would tell her students to draw a scientist. The kids would draw old men with glasses and crazy white hair. Your basic Albert Einstein look.
The class repeated the exercise at the end of the program. All the kids would draw themselves. Once the kids took the classes, they could see themselves as scientists.
This was Gall’s first glimpse at the possibilities in science.
That class, at the Hatchery Hill School in Hackettstown, New Jersey, featured experiments with liquid nitrogen. The instructor would freeze tennis balls and break them. Pretty cool to a kid.
“It was hands on,” Gall said. “It was super fun. And it taught you about science and experimentation and physical properties.”
Gall, now with a Ph.D. in chemistry and chemical biology, is the Fluorescence Software Product Manager and a Fluorescence Applications Scientist II at HORIBA Scientific in Piscataway, New Jersey, a global leader in fluorescence instrumentation and solutions, with decades of experience from SPEX, Jobin Yvon, SLM, IBH & PTI, all integrated into the HORIBA fluorescence product portfolio.
Gall led the team that wrote the software for HORIBA'S ground breaking new Duetta, a compact, benchtop fluorescence and absorbance spectrometer. The application, called EzSpec™ Touch-Screen Software, is intuitive and simple to use.
Researchers can use Duetta as a fluorometer, as a UV-Vis-NIR spectrometer to measure absorbance, or as an instrument that measures true molecular fingerprints, which require the acquisition of fluorescence and absorbance, correcting for inner filter effects in real time.
Gall earned a Bachelor’s of Science in chemistry from the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, Rhode Island.
“I did a little bit of a research with Dr. Bill Euler, who was studying some thermochromic polymers that change color with temperature,” she said. “We were synthesizing these polymers, thinking they could possibly be used for things like a coffee cups. If your coffee gets too hot, your lid changes color, or something along those lines. I don't think it ever went anywhere, but it was a really good educational experience.”
Gall moved on to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She earned her Ph.D. in chemistry and chemical biology there.
“After Rhode Island, I was looking at grad school,” Gall said. “I didn't really know what I wanted to be when I grew up yet, and so I figured I'd just keep learning. But I knew that I liked polymer science and so I looked at different universities that had good polymer programs.”
Gall began working in polymer synthesis at Rutgers. She quickly learned that doing synthetic organic chemistry was not her strength.
“I was just too clumsy,” she said. “My yields were not great and it wasn't enjoyable for me.”
But she met a professor who was working on characterizing polymer materials for drug delivery. They were using fluorescent spectroscopy to characterize these polymers.
“I did a rotation in that lab and I got to use lasers and I got to look at fluorescence and I thought, this is way better,” Gall said. “I really got more into chemical physics that way, looking at materials on the molecular level.”
The researchers weren’t doing FDA trials. Yet they were solubilizing different molecules and hydrophobic molecules for drug delivery. It was basic research.
There were few women in her chemistry and math classes in college. They included chemical engineers, biomedical engineers.
“I remember I was the only female in my advanced math class,” she said.
That changed in graduate school, where the mix of women and men was more homogeneous. She never felt slighted by other students as a woman, but that didn’t apply to professors.
“There are a lot of professors in the world that, if you're a woman scientist, they don't take you as seriously as a male scientist,” Gall said. “There’s a bias sometimes. They don't realize that application scientists are also Ph.Ds. and they work just as hard as professors.”
Gall was doing a lot of sales support, presales support and post-sales support when she started at HORIBA.
“I would go to customer sites and train them on their newly purchased instrument. Then I'd go through the different methods that they can use for the various applications they needed to perform.”
Now she’s more involved in software development, especially for the Duetta. It has been a multiyear project for her because the software began as a new platform.
“When I first started working at HORIBA, one of the things that I was a little vocal about was that our software could be so much better," she said. "And that our instrument isn't just hardware, it's also software. My job and my work on that was really to define what the customer experience was going to be using our new products.”
Gall’s team worked with software programmers, testers and a usability consultant all to make the user interface more intuitive.
“Our team is fantastic,” she said. “I'm super happy to be working with them now and although we've released EzSpec™ software, we continue to work on it to make it even better in the future.”
Gall recommends young girls and women interested in the sciences and technology speak with their teachers. Their teachers are the most important resource because they can point you toward family science classes. These days, there's a lot of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) resources, both within schools and outside of schools.
“So, my advice would be, if you are interested in STEM, start a club or go to your teachers,” she said. “They can start a STEM club if there isn't one already, or tell you where you can learn more about science. Or ask them what an engineer does. These are the type of key questions to ask.”
Gall has another motivation that has driven her into the sciences. At the age of five, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It had a big impact on her life. She went to see several doctors and got her blood tested constantly. That's not easy for a young kid. Insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors weren’t available yet. And doctors told her a cure was five years away.
So from a very young age, her wish was to find a cure for diabetes. It has been a part of her life and has always been in the back of her head. If she’s in science, she reasons, maybe she can help with things like this.
Then serendipity struck. HORIBA recently sold a Duetta to a company in England that's making continuous glucose monitor systems and a glucose sensitive insulin.
“For me that that's a personal victory,” Gall said. “They're using the instrument and the software I helped design to study new research in helping people with type 1 diabetes, which is awesome.”
For more information on fluorescence, visit the Fluorescence Spectroscopy section of our website, or contact Karen Gall at karen.gall(at)horiba.com.
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