At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, Jennifer Lewis, a biological engineering professor at Harvard with 10 patents to her name, unveiled a potentially revolutionary new technology: the world’s first 3-D printer capable of spitting out fully functional electronics. While most current models print plastic-based filament–which is fitting for trinkets and prototypes–Voxel8’s uses a conductive silver ink that can be printed right into a USB drive or quadcopter drone, for example, and that can be filled in around microchips inserted by hand. The first generation of Voxel8 printers will arrive at universities and industrial labs for research purposes by the end of the year, but Lewis envisions a future in which anyone involved in the DIY movement can print his or her own computer parts or robotic toys at home. “We ultimately want to mass-customize electronics,” she says.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
I feed off the people that are around me, I think is the best way to say it. I build multi-disciplinary teams, so we’re bringing people that think very differently together and have different expertise. And then, I typically thrive by being embedded in an ecosystem of innovation. The Harvard/MIT nexus is itself very entrepreneurial and translational-focused and I think for me just riffing with the people that are in your research group or in the company or the next nearest neighbors–I think that’s where the ideas just come.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
I check my iPhone! I’m so guilty! I check my iPhone immediately. I don’t even get out of bed. It’s a habit I’m trying to break, but it’s true. I’m just checking to see what pressing things are hitting. I’m always checking to see is there anything hijacking my day.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
I think, although it’s becoming more common now, that faculty do these entrepreneurial startup ventures, that actually being a faculty member gives you this ability to also translate work out of the lab and into the commercial sector. Ten years ago, I probably would have said, ‘No, that’s not what academics do,’ but of course that’s all changing–and rapidly.
How do you keep track of everything you have to do?
I write it down in two ways: I have it on my iPhone and I have it written down by hand. I actually somewhat prefer the handwritten version: I’m just old-fashioned. There’s something really nice about crossing it out with your pen instead of swiping it with your little finger.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
It’s typically around physical exercise. The best thing to do is put down the electronics or whatever I’m working on and either get outside, or I do indoor spinning. So, I do cycling classes and things like that, anything to get the heartrate way up and just clear my mind. I find that’s the best way of reducing stress, but that’s also a time where you can be very creative, too, especially immediately following exercise.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
I have to give a shout out to my hero Regina Dugan who’s the director of Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) and was the former director of DARPA. She inspires me on many levels, but mostly the thing that really connects is that she’s always encouraging you to not let fear hold you back: You can always talk yourself out of doing something. I think through a friendship with her and just watching her own change of career path, her own trajectory, I find her very inspiring.