By thomas m. baer
Whenever I reach a point where I’ve been in an area for 5 or 10 years and I have an opportunity to change, all other things being equal, I’ll choose change,” says Tom Baer. A respected scientist, entrepreneur, and industry leader, Baer is now serving as the 2009 president of the Optical Society of America (OSA) while continuing his role as Executive Director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center (SPRC, at Stanford University in California), which is doing pioneering work in neuroscience and developmental biology (see bioopticsworld.com/articles/359536).
Baer remembers hearing Nobel laureate and laser co-inventor Art Schawlow speak once. “You do not have to be an expert in a field to make a significant contribution,” Baer recalls Schawlow saying, “And I’ve found that to be true.” Just recently, with the work he’s been doing in embryology and developmental biology, “the fact that I’ve come in with a fresh perspective was extremely important,” Baer notes.
Explaining his career path, he says, “It’s like crossing a stream going rock to rock. You turn around and look back, and you’re in the middle of the stream–and it never seems like you took a big step. But you’re far, far away from where you started.”
A respected scientist, entrepreneur, and industry leader, Tom Baer is serving as the 2009 president of the OSA while continuing his role as Executive Director of SPRC.
This is why Baer says he doesn’t consider himself much of a risk taker. Even though, before joining Stanford in 2005, he was a successful entrepreneur and was awarded the Silicon Valley Entrepreneurial Award for Emerging Companies by the San Jose Business Journal. “I didn’t jump in and start doing startups in Silicon Valley. I was here for 12 years working at Spectra Physics, learning how businesses operate and then I joined a startup where I wasn’t a founder…and only after about 15 years did I say, now I think I’m ready to start to be a primary interface to the funding sources. Some people think they are prepared to do it right out of school, but I knew I wasn’t.”
A privileged education
Baer says he had a “very privileged education,” explaining, “I’ve worked with some of the greatest experimentalists and theoretical atomic physicists of the last century.” His influences include Nobel prize winner John Hall, “a very sophisticated electrical engineer and designer who showed me how you could combine that with physics in ways that I hadn’t been aware of before,” and Ugo Fano, a theoretician and brilliant mathematician who “was inspiring in how much he loved what he did.” Other mentors included John Brandenburg at Lawrence University, where Baer earned his BA in Physics, and Isaac Abella at the University of Chicago, where he earned his MS and Ph.D. in Atomic Physics. These people “played a huge role in providing me with a valuable skill set I have used throughout my career,” Baer says. Other skills he needed to succeed in Silicon Valley he learned on his own, but he felt well prepared to do that.
Baer co-founded Arcturus Bioscience Inc. with Milton Chang in 1996 and served as its chairman and CEO until 2005. “Tom deserves a lot of the credit for making laser-based microdissection a reality,” says Michael R. Emmert-Buck, MD, PhD of the National Institutes of Health, which hosts a laser capture microdissection (LCM) core facility. “He had the vision and foresight to see where the field of molecular pathology was headed, and assembled a private sector team at Arcturus that worked closely with our group at NIH to advance LCM and bring it to the marketplace.”
Before that Baer was VP of Research at Biometric Imaging, where he led an interdisciplinary group developing instrumentation and reagents with applications in AIDS monitoring, bone marrow transplant therapy, and blood supply quality control. From 1981 to 1992 he worked for Spectra-Physics, Inc.–as a research scientist, Spectra-Physics Fellow, and VP of Research. In 1989, he co-founded Spectra-Physics Laser Diode Systems to commercialize diode and solid-state laser instruments based on his research.
He is an inventor on over 60 U.S. patents, and a Fellow of both the OSA and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also took executive education classes at Harvard Business School. Baer is now leveraging his education and talent for the benefit of science and industry. He serves on visiting committees and advisory groups with NIST, NIH, and the Physical Sciences Division of the University of Chicago–and he has held numerous leadership positions within OSA since joining in 1975. He acknowledges that he “couldn’t do all these things without the support of Stanford,” and is clearly grateful for the support of his wife–a librarian with a keen interest in his work who has been named on some patents because of key contributions she has made.
The future of scientific information exchange
Baer’s visionary ability is evident in his work for the OSA. He is leading the society (and the society is leading the scientific community as a result) to “set up the infrastructure to allow science to move along the evolutionary path that is now possible because of the dramatic increase in telecommunication bandwidth.” Baer says, “How we’ve been doing science for the past 400–500 years has really just been exchanging pieces of paper.” But, he says, “There is so much more now that can be done on a real-time basis,” and current internet-based tools “go far beyond what you can capture in a manuscript or a PDF file.”
The OSA’s Interactive Scientific Publishing (ISP) initiative, which the society calls, “a new paradigm for the publication of scientific images,” is a project Baer started about four years ago. It grew out of work he was doing with Jim Mulshine at Rush University Medical Center. Collaborating on lung cancer work in medical imaging, the partners discovered “a crying need for access to data sets from CT and MRI scans that would illustrate the types of lesions you could now image and use for screening tumor drug response,” says Baer. But there was no system able to facilitate the sharing of information that was sequestered in hospitals all across the country. Baer decided to work through the OSA to define the general infrastructure and build a prototype system. He quickly realized that such an infrastructure could support the exchange of other types of source data linked to manuscripts, and that it applied to all areas of science.
So, he says, “we established a philosophy of how to go about doing this and then built the infrastructure: the hardware, the database, the metadata associated with the raw data, how you would fit this concept into publication manuscript flow, how readers would interact with source data, and what the architecture should be at least in the early stages. Then we got the OSA to find several partners to fund its development.” Baer says his motivation was to explore, “how can we improve the way we do science in order to accelerate discovery and innovation?”
“It took us a while to get our arms around how to make this truly useful,” Baer says. And at this point the OSA has published three special issues–including one on Digital Holography and 3-D Imaging and another on OCT–with articles containing 2D and 3D data sets. Readers download the data sets and view them interactively through software provided by the OSA. “That software provides an open source framework; so it will take plug-ins developed by the scientific community,” he notes. This enables the development of new tools, “so it’s not just access to data, but an infrastructure to support the exchange of image analysis and feature extraction.”
“We see that this is the way scientific publishing is going,” Baer says. “That access to peer reviewed data sets–metadata-linked data sets–is going to be the primary function of the exchange of scientific information. The manuscripts will be descriptive of what is in the data sets. The optimum information will be contained in the linking of the published manuscript, source data, and metadata.”
“OSA is the best scientific society that I’ve ever been associated with in terms of organization and philosophy,” says Baer, noting that the volunteers and staff work together closely and productively. He seems honored to be a part of its leadership, which he says has been consistently “insightful and visionary in terms of what a scientific society can supply.” After talking with numerous other societies, Baer says they all can sense that the move “from a manuscript-centric view of the world to a data-centric view of the world” is coming, but that the OSA “has the clearest vision” of this future.
Working with the OSA’s student chapters and with the more than 200 Stanford students associated with SPRC (he spends about half of his time on the Stanford campus working with students), he’s gotten an education in data exchange and community building of another sort–through social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. He says a network of about 3000 to 4000 OSA students has formed through the use of these resources. “It’s a phenomenal change of how scientists build communities,” Baer says, “I’m amazed by its potential and trying to support its growth.”
Another thing he’s trying to encourage: involvement of scientists in discussion of ethics and responsibility. He says he likes to do things that will have a significant impact on the practice of medicine, and apply his skills in a way that they can “do some good.” Baer notes, “I find there’s so many ways you can do that these days using photonics technology”–and it’s clear that he’s found quite a few.