Though the itinerary doesn’t include a glamorous stroll down the red carpet in Hollywood or a white-tie and tails gala in Stockholm, Angela Pannier is excited about her travel plans for the month.
There was a family vacation in Minnesota and an upcoming work trip to Spain. But, sandwiched between was a quick stop in the nation’s capital to receive an honor.
On July 25 in Washington, D.C., Pannier was among 300 young researchers from across the United States receiving the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for the years 2015-2017. It is the highest honor presented by the federal government to individuals who are in the early stages of their research careers.
“As far as I can tell, based on the emails and texts I’ve been getting, this is a really big deal,” Pannier said. “It’s an award you do not apply for. I am overwhelmed by it and all the people reaching out to congratulate me.”
And in a bit of a time crunch to fit it into an already busy schedule.
“I just found out three weeks before the ceremony,” Pannier said, “and now I’m squeezing in a quick trip to D.C. between the other trips!”
And working as a co-chair on a N2025 committee drafting a strategic plan for the university for the next five years. And being part of a graduate student’s doctoral defense. And a qualifying exam. All in the same two weeks as all the travel.
Finding her path
As a youth growing up in Fremont, Nebraska, Pannier was always hungry to learn. But the path to becoming an engineering professor and internationally renowned researcher wasn’t always clear.
“I always loved math, science and physics, and I loved reading. I read all the time. My mom and dad couldn’t get me books fast enough,” Pannier said. “That’s probably why when I was 5 my aunt used to call me ‘The Little Professor.’ That was not necessarily my inspiration or aspiration at the time or the reason I got into engineering.”
Study in a STEM field remained gauzy through high school as Pannier pursued another love for playing the oboe.
“I remember when I started playing a musical instrument, someone told me the oboe is one of the hardest instruments, so I said that’s what I wanted to play,” Pannier said. “They tried to convince me to start on clarinet because I was only 10, and I said, ‘No. I’m playing the oboe.’”
A high school physics teacher noted Pannier’s love for STEM subjects and steered her toward engineering.
“Someone took an interest in me in high school and showed me an alternative career path,” Pannier said. “I had never met an engineer and I didn’t know that much about engineering, but it was going to be oboe or engineering when I came to UNL.
“I still love music, though I’m not sure I can still play the oboe very well any more, but I’m so happy I chose engineering. After all this time, I’m still in love with it.”
Always do good science
Pannier had a traditional summer engineering internship in government after her freshman year. Things went so well, she was invited to return to the department the following summer.
“I learned a lot that summer, but I didn’t like it,” Pannier said. “I learned what I didn’t want from engineering.”
After her sophomore year, Pannier was accepted into a summer research program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in the department of pharmacology. The biggest challenge she faced that summer was working in a biology lab without having a background in biology.
Pannier’s lack of knowledge was embraced by the lab leadership and staff, which made every effort to make sure she understood the work.
“So many people were patient with me,” Pannier said. “The lab manager would stand in the halls where they had all the research posters and explain them to me. And, the PI would sit with me for hours and explain everything about science and academia.
“I just fell in love with it all. Right then and there, I wanted to ask how to get his job because I was enamored with the work. He taught me always do good science.”
Being a straight-A student from grade school to grad school, Pannier has always been determined to succeed. But recognizing the value of research failures is something that was learned.
It’s a lesson she’s patiently trying to impart to the many graduate students who have worked in Pannier Lab.
“Many of the people who come to graduate school are Type-A, super-smart perfectionists who haven’t failed very much in their lives. That’s why we admitted them,” Pannier said. “They may not be good at solving problems when they start, but over time they excel.”
Some students are hesitant to run experiments for fear they won’t achieve the desired result, Pannier said.
“They think maybe they should read a few more papers to make sure they have the perfect conditions, or they did a little pilot and it didn’t look good,” Pannier said. “When you’re transitioning from undergraduate to graduate, you never want to tell a faculty member that you failed or couldn’t figure something out.
“I just want to tell them to rip the Band-Aid off and go do it. What’s the worst that can happen? It doesn’t work? You never do something new and not learn something new.”
Pannier said that’s why she includes her students in the processes of applying for grants or submitting papers for publication. Many times, those applications or submissions aren’t successful.
“Every time that happens, you receive peer review comments, you get criticisms that are painful at first,” Pannier said. “If you step back and look at your life, you realize that there’s so much you learn from things that seem so horribly bad at the time.”
Engineers in training
Biomedical research has been a dynamic and innovative field in recent years, with innovative medicines and delivery systems being developed. Some, like CAR T-cell therapies that cure some forms of cancer and a gene therapy that can cure some forms of blindness in pediatric patients, have found their way on the market, though with great expense to the patient.
Pannier said it’s an exciting time to be in the field of gene therapy, but she’s trying to stay realistic about the impact her work is having.
“The world of gene therapy is moving so quickly that I have a lot of hope we can have an impact,” Pannier said. “While I think we have a lot of things circling around, a lot of projects in the mix that can have an impact or generate patents, we aren’t at the point where we’re quite seeing that yet.
“I think some of our DNA vaccination work and gene therapy work has the potential to make a large clinical impact. I do believe that. It’s just that the therapies we’re investigating are complicated. It takes a long time for us to figure out how to do it and how to do it safely.”
And while it’s great to imagine a time when her work will change the world for the better, Pannier said it’s essential to recognize that the research is not her only far-reaching engineering work.
“The most important thing is that I’m training engineers to go out and do some amazing things,” Pannier said. “And they’re amazing me every day.”