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Chasing the next question: Amber McBride

Amber McBride is using her expertise in nanotechnology, drug delivery, and disease models to research fundamental challenges in human health in the ORNL Biosciences Division. Photographed by Carlos Jones, ORNL.

Topic: Clean Energy

Figuring out how things work began early for Amber McBride, whose parents encouraged her natural curiosity as a child by supporting her yearly science fair projects. She studied everything from the effects of vibration on various objects to the behavior of honeybees her family kept on their rural homestead in Kansas, always eager for the next scientific exploration.

Today, McBride is engaged in work to solve foundational challenges in human health in the Biosciences Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, utilizing her expertise in nanotechnology, drug delivery, and disease models. She’s been at the lab just six months, but already has a full slate of projects.

McBride’s early career, lab-directed research project is focused on Daphnia Magna—a water flea used to help monitor water quality. This tiny freshwater crustacean will often be the first to show the effects of any pollutants that may be present in streams and ponds—“like a canary in a coal mine,” McBride said. She will be working with the Aquatic Ecology Group to gain a better understanding of the genes that work in concert in the water flea in response to contaminants.

Another project McBride is taking on within the Nuclear and Radiochemistry Group will examine the effects of clinically relevant doses of alpha radiation. The work leverages ORNL’s strengths in isotopes as well as McBride’s own nanoengineering expertise. McBride will study the cellular effects of radiation in a project using next-generation genome sequencing on breast cancer and stem cells and how this affects cancer. ORNL’s focus on medical isotope separations is, in fact, one of the factors that drew McBride to the lab.

“There’s lots of opportunity for research in medical radioisotopes, particularly for someone like me who’s interested in delivery systems for these therapies, or who wants to gain a better understanding of delivery mechanisms in synthetic biology. It’s a unique area of study for a national lab,”

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Another area she is gearing up to work in at ORNL is researching techniques to ensure safe, secure and resilient outcomes when utilizing and developing new approaches to gene editing.

McBride has always been interested in the natural world, but as with many scientists, her path was somewhat circuitous. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in public administration at the University of Kansas, but found the field lacking. She was drawn back to college to study biological science. “It really was this sense of going back to what I was good at as a child,” McBride said. She then earned an undergraduate degree in biology at Kansas State University.

Her first foray into research at the university level, and one that also netted her a publication, harkened back to her childhood—a project studying the flight patterns of honeybees.

Amber McBride is using her expertise in nanotechnology, drug delivery, and disease models to research fundamental challenges in human health in the ORNL Biosciences Division.

After earning a biology degree, McBride worked for a biotechnology startup, developing a lung cancer assay for diagnosis of early stage carcinoma. She then took a position in the human tissue repository at the University of New Mexico, where she began her graduate studies. There, McBride earned master’s and doctoral degrees in nanoscience and microsystems engineering, including a stint at the Institute of Experimental Oncology and Therapy Research in Munich, Germany as a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellow working on RNA gene delivery therapies.

After grad school, she took on postdoctoral positions at the University of New Mexico and at Sandia National Laboratories, where she continued her work in drug delivery systems and genome editing.

McBride considers her biggest success so far to be the path she took in graduate school, with many different types of research experiences to help her decide her concentration, and then securing a postdoc and later a research scientist position at national labs. “The national labs are a rich repository of knowledge. Most people don’t know there’s a network of 17 DOE national labs, and that research positions exist there in nearly every area.”

Science is “very interdisciplinary,” and good research often depends on working in teams who excel in their respective areas of science, she added. “The questions you may have will cross many areas of science. And the things I work on can be relevant not just to human health, but to developments in nanotechnology, understanding microbiomes, bacteria” and more, she said.  “Science is not done in a box. The best science happens when astute minds work together.”

Her advice for young scientists is to challenge yourself. “Continue to take the hard math and sciences in school and push yourself in those classes. Even as an adult, continue to learn and have a growth mindset and work on those projects that stretch you. Those are the keys to success: to be prepared so you can take advantage of great opportunities when they come about,” McBride said. “Pick an area you’re enthusiastic about. I hate that follow-your-passion advice, because I’m passionate about a lot of things. Instead, find something you enjoy doing, stick with it, and find out as much about it as you can. Go long and hard after it.”

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://science.energy.gov.