2009 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

Fran Ligler

Invented and developed various sensor systems that are diagnosing infectious diseases in developing countries, monitoring the air for biothreat agents and supporting clean-up efforts at Superfund sites.

When Fran Ligler joined government in 1986 to work in the field of biosensors, she never imagined that she would stay longer than a few years.

“Before entering government service, I had five job offers,” said Ligler. “So I took the one that sounded the most fun—working in government.”

More than two decades later, she is still in government, where she has invented and developed multiple sensor systems to tackle real-world problems. Her most influential contributions have been in the development of fiber-optic biosensors, which detect environmental pollutants and hazardous chemicals; and flow immunosensors, which are used to detect drugs, explosives and pesticides.

Extensive field work has been done with Ligler’s sensors to study the detection of explosives contamination in groundwater, surface water and soil at military bases. They have also been used to diagnose infectious diseases, monitor the air for biothreat agents, identify pathogens in the food supply and support environmental clean-up efforts.

As Senior Scientist for Biosensors & Biomaterials at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Dr. Ligler leads a team of scientists who invent and develop portable, automated sensors, which work by detecting toxic substances at a very low level to warn of their presence. In addition, she builds partnerships with other agencies and private sector partners to put these sensors to use.

“More than just leading a team, Fran inspires people,” said Dr. Joel Schnur, former division head at the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. He met Ligler when he interviewed her more than 20 years ago for a position in the new interdisciplinary department at the NRL that would focus on the self-assembly of biomolecules.

“I thought this was an interesting vision,” stated Ligler. “I could see that this was where breakthroughs were happening. So I joined Joel and, after a year, started the program in biosensors.”

Ligler is known by her peers as someone who can unite people across sectors to see projects through to completion. “Fran has successfully created a common language so that people from different sectors can understand each other,” explained Dr. Banahalli Ratna, division head at the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. “She has put together teams with very different backgrounds to work on a central goal.”

Ligler currently holds 24 issued patents and has 9 patents pending. She has also published 169 referred journal papers, 3 books (4th in press), 38 book chapters and 66 full-length papers in conference proceedings. Of course, the thing that is more important than all these is getting her sensors “into the hands of those who need them.”

One of Ligler’s current projects involves developing a blood cell counter that will be more affordable and flexible than others currently being used. This device may enable scientists to test for diseases from the patient’s bedside, instead of having to send tests out to a laboratory.

“I love my job for the adventure, the continuing exploration into new possibilities,” says Ligler. “I also enjoy the opportunity to study scientists—the most curious, motivated and uninhibited species on the planet!”

Dr. Chris Myatt has been working with Ligler since 2004 and now has 10 staff members at his company, Precision Photonics, dedicated to commercializing her sensor technology.

“This sensor technology will have an enormous impact on medical testing,” he explained. “It will allow patients to get test results immediately and get on with their lives.”

Dr. Ligler’s work has revolutionized the sensor field, inspiring and enabling countless others who have built upon her work to develop new devices.

“I have demonstrated that it is possible to make small, automated sensor systems that have inspired others to build upon my work to develop tools that are fast, affordable and on-the-spot,” said Ligler.

Manufacturable, field-portable versions of the flow immunosensor have been built and are being validated for Environmental Protection Agency certification as a field method.

Twenty-three years after entering government, Fran Ligler still thinks working in government can be fun, but, more than anything, her service proves it can make people’s lives safer.