As a scientist at the National Institute of Science and Technology, Callie Higgins was intrigued by 3D printing, specifically its applications for regenerative medicine and the opportunities to improve its manufacturing capabilities for plastics, coatings and optical components.
But Higgins, 31, was dismayed by manufacturing flaws inherent to the 3D-printing process that were preventing the technology from reaching its full potential. Undetected, microscopic weaknesses in the materials sometimes occurred as the polymers or plastic formed into a product, creating the potential for catastrophic part failure.
To solve this problem, Higgins and her colleagues developed a technique that enables scientists and engineers to detect, remedy and even reverse engineer these microscopic manufacturing flaws that develop during the 3D-printing process.
“The impact of the science that Callie has discovered is immeasurable,” said Robert Keller, a supervisory materials research engineer at NIST. “Manufacturers will have the ability to create high-quality plastic parts. In the health care industry, this technology could lead to advancements in the development of replacement body parts and organs.”
The discovery by Higgins and her colleagues centered on a sophisticated modification of an atomic force microscope. The modification helped revolutionize the way parts made of polymer materials such as plastics could be understood and characterized.
Before her work, product evaluation was limited to millimeter length scales. Her technique enables products to be evaluated at the sub micrometer level where microscopic flaws can be seen at all relevant stages of the manufacturing process.
“This science will revolutionize regenerative medicine,” said Scott Turner, the director of advanced research and development at 3D Systems. His company, he said, is planning to use the technology to create 3D-printed lungs, one of the hardest organs to produce.
“Callie’s work is the kind of underlying science that will guide us through the future of tissue engineering with photopolymers,” Turner said.
Higgins’ work has the potential to revolutionize many fields beyond health care, including plastics, coatings, optics and, generally, additive manufacturing.
“Ford Motor Company has been very assertive in talking with Callie about pursuing the technology because they want to create engine part components that will perform the way they need them to and at a much lighter weight,” Keller said.
Marla Dowell, the director of the NIST Communications Technology Laboratory, said Higgins’ work will “help emerging industries.”
“She is enabling technology that will allow people to more rapidly share and disseminate their products,” Dowell said. “It’s enabling manufacturers to have an entree into emerging markets and will allow U.S. companies to compete more effectively on the international scale.”
Higgins said she is excited about the ripple effect of her scientific work.
“Through NIST, I get the opportunity to impact an entire industry, not just one company,” she said. “We are here to drive innovation throughout in the United States and if we are not serving the people, we aren’t serving our mission.”
Jason Killgore, a project leader in NIST’s Applied Chemicals and Materials Division, noted that Higgins “has been able to connect with industry stakeholders in a way that’s never been seen before.”
“Instead of conducting science in a vacuum and hoping that the industry appreciates what we do down the road, she is actively making sure that we’re doing the right science on a day-to-day basis,” Killgore said.
Higgins said that “being able to tap into different stakeholder groups and provide unbiased opinion, perspective and research has been life changing for me.”
“This field has the potential to impact so much of our daily lives if we can bring the right minds together to solve these pressing challenges in the printing process,” Higgins said. “Through the additive manufacturing network of stakeholders I have developed, I am finally in a position where I can affect change.”
Even while she was immersed in scientific discovery, Higgins said she was dismayed by the lack of opportunities for early-career scientists like herself to network with each other and meet with industry professionals working in similar fields.
To solve this problem, Higgins founded the Front Range Industry and Postdoc Summit Association that brings early-career staff together with representatives from industry to foster collaboration and employment opportunities. Higgins also helped reshape how federal agencies approach employee mentorships by leading NIST’s Postdoc and Early-Career Association of Researchers.
As a result of her efforts, dozens of early career scientists have obtained both federal and nonfederal jobs, and dozens of mentorship opportunities have materialized.
“What sets Higgins apart is not just her excellence in the technical field,” Dowell said. “It’s also the way she has created a collaborative, scientific community.”