Alumni Profiles

Kristen Maitland, PhD '06

From Lawrence Livermore National Lab Research Scientist to Teaching Optics at Texas A&M

Kristen C Maitland

While working towards her bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Kristen Maitland performed research for her master's thesis at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. From this experience working in electrical engineering and optics research, Maitland knew she wanted to pursue a doctorate.

Around the same time she had an arthroscopic knee surgery. Today, an arthroscopic knee surgery, where a physician inserts an endoscope into a joint to repair cartilage, is standard.

"At the time, I thought it was really amazing to visualize the surgery inside my knee with an endoscope passed through small incisions," says Maitland.

She began thinking about applying optics to biomedical engineering. Maitland chose The University of Texas at Austin to pursue her doctoral studies because she wanted to work with Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum (currently at Rice University), an expert in high resolution imaging. She describes Richards-Kortum as "a superwoman."

"Working with Rebecca was a wonderful experience. She's brilliant and efficient, and a great balancer at life," Maitland says.

She was accepted into the NSF IGERT Program and worked with Richards-Kortum on an optical fiber-based high resolution confocal microscope that can be used to detect cervical and oral cancer.

As an NSF IGERT Fellow, Maitland was able to meet researchers from other institutions and attend a biophotonics summer school and conference in Europe. She credits the NSF IGERT Program with having a huge impact on her career due to the networking opportunities. One conversation during this particular conference sticks out.

"In a beer garden in Munich, I had an eye-opening discussion with a former postdoc of Rebecca's. I was discouraged by the challenges of an academic career and intimidated by the ease with which Rebecca tackled these challenges. He reassured me that I did not have to be just like Rebecca in order to be successful in an academic career."

Which is not to say Maitland has not been successful; quite the opposite. After earning her doctoral degree, Maitland returned to the Lawrence Livermore Lab as a research scientist. For two years, she worked on a number of projects on optical sensing and biodetection applications as well as a large scale laser project.

At a SPIE Conference, she and her husband were courted by the head of biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University. The idea of applying her optical engineering skills to biomedical problems tugged at her, and she was eager to join the world of academia. In 2008 she joined the Texas A&M faculty.

"I was always interested in becoming a professor because I love learning and teaching. And I continue to learn while helping others."

Today her research focus is in developing optical technologies to detect and diagnose disease.

Today she's an associate professor whose research projects have all developed from discussions with other researchers. Currently her main projects are using fluorescence lifetime imaging and confocal microscopy to detect oral cancer at its earliest stage and an optical fiber micro endoscope to study the development of bacterial tuberculosis.

Watch Kristen explain how she's using photonics to detect oral cancer in this video from SPIE TV.