Bio-safety-level-2 laboratories in the Bio5 Building at the University of Arizona Medical School is where Linda Powers has designed and built several impressive and important scientific instruments.
“Here we handle microbes that can make you sick, but generally not kill you,” said Powers on a recent tour.
But the 64-year-old Beckley native, now the Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Professor of Bio-Engineering at the University of Arizona, does handle microbes that can kill you.
“Yes, that’s a BSL-3 Laboratory, and that is highly regulated by the CDC,” she explains.
Powers is a professor of electrical and computer engineering and a professor of bio-medical engineering.
She described one of her technologies, a handheld biosensor small enough to take in a backpack into the wilderness or the desert that can detect microbial contamination in real time.
“The light shines on the surface, like my hand here, and the light comes from these LEDs. And this is the detector, so the light captures the florescence – and you read it out here on this small computer,” said Powers.
“When I was in the Arctic we used a PDA – just a little handheld thing,” she added.
The microbes are visible instantly.
“We can’t tell you what species they are, but I can tell you there are microbes there and the microbial load,” she continued. “The reason that’s important is because microbes are communal, and if you have large communities, you will have pathogens living in there.”
The instruments that Powers has been building for the last 15 years are aimed at looking for life in extreme environments or life in places where it is very difficult to do the standard microbiological or biological testing.
She’s been designing instruments that can measure the tiniest amounts of microbial contamination on surfaces, including food preparation surfaces, the hospital operating theater, hospital surgical instruments, and in air, water, and other fluids.
Powers’ instruments have many applications.
They can test the quality of a city water supply or a well in an African village.
She also designs and builds instruments for the Department of Defense and NASA. Much of that work is secret, but one of her instruments can detect possible bio-terrorism; another, life on Mars.
Powers was a pioneer in the use of something called “synchrotron radiation” as well as “x-ray absorption spectroscopy”.
She says she’s always been a science “geek” and that she’s been interested in light since she was a kid in Beckley.
“That was 3rd grade. I wanted a telescope for Christmas and I got a telescope, and I was hooked,” Powers said. “Then I got interested in chemistry, and then I got interested in light, and I got interested in explosives and I got interested in rockets.”
“It was there and it was a very strong force in my life.”
When she was in the 8th grade at Beckley Junior High, Powers won first place at the West Virginia State Science Fair for a project using light.
It was one of many science fair awards.
“My mom in particular didn’t understand half of the things that got me excited but she would sit by the hour and listen to me rant and rave about it,” she recalled.
Powers’ father worked for Eastern Associated Coal and her mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“I came home one day from high school and said, ‘I want to go to college,’ and my father’s eyes got huge, but nobody said ‘no’.”
Up to then, no one in the Powers family had gone to college. To see if she was really interested, her parents suggested she take some courses at Marshall University the summer before her senior year of high school.
“I took courses in chemistry and I did some experiments that turned out far beyond what anybody could have anticipated,” said Powers. “I wrote it all up, and that was what I wrote to the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which I won in my senior year in high school.”
Powers was among the top five science students in the nation. Westinghouse Science Talent Search awarded her a major academic scholarship.
After graduating from Virginia Tech, she got a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University. From there Powers was recruited to lead her own research group at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, which at the time was considered the finest research laboratory in the world.
Powers says throughout her years at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, college and at Bell Labs, she had a series of teachers and mentors who encouraged her to reach for the sky.
“The sky is the limit. And in West Virginia, that sky is even closer!” said Powers. “There’s no reason for you (any student) to have any problem doing what you want to do. If you want it, do it!”
“Somebody will take notice along the way and help you,” she said. “They certainly did me, and this was back when girls didn’t do things like that.”
“Don’t let anybody stand in your way! You’ll be surprised at the people you’ll find who will support you, especially in West Virginia.”
Linda Powers is among those featured in the documentary Inspiring West Virginians, produced by Jean Snedegar with Senior Producer Suzanne Higgins.