What connective tissue binds faculty and researchers from six University of Cincinnati colleges to industry experts from fields as disparate as design and pharmacy?
Skin. As in, the human body’s largest organ.
Specifically, the unifying term for the field is Skin Science, the core of UC’s 4-year-old Skin Science Technology Collaborative, or S2TC. It combines research on everything from how and why our skin can change over time to skin-friendly sensors that measure everything from our heart rates to our sleep and medical treatments that can be delivered directly through our skin.
Heather Norton, PhD, a biological anthropologist and associate professor in UC’s College of Arts & Sciences, becomes the Collaborative’s new academic director this summer.
“The most exciting thing about getting involved with the S2TC has been becoming aware of not only all of the really great skin science that is being done here at UC, as well as at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Shriner’s Hospital for Children, but also of the exciting advances in skin science that are happening elsewhere in the region,” Norton said.
Those advances reach outside of academic walls, Norton said, noting that a primary goal of S2TC is to provide pathways that allow academics to partner directly with industry in both project and product development. Through the S2TC, industry partners can access experts and researchers with a wide range of related expertise who can help them develop products that quite simply make life better for people, Norton explained.
And she has seen how that part of the Collaborative works first-hand.
“In my own research, I have largely focused on the evolution of skin pigmentation variation—specifically trying to understand how pigmentation variation evolved as an adaptation to different levels of ultra-violet radiation,” Norton explained. “I’m interested in finding ways to accurately describe pigmentation using quantitative methods and in identifying the genetic changes responsible for that variation as a way to understand the evolution of this very complex trait.”
Her interest in what causes skin to change led her to S2TC in 2015, when she started working with researchers at the Collaborative’s initial industry partner, the Procter & Gamble Co. Together, they developed a project that examined the “environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors associated with facial skin aging,” she said.
As she connected with other S2TC researchers on campus, Norton began to understand the scope of expertise represented by faculty in more than 15 departments across six colleges—Arts & Sciences; College of Engineering & Applied Science; College of Medicine; College of Nursing; and College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning.
Norton said she is looking forward to not only supporting existing research connections, but also building new ones as the S2TC academic director. “One very simple thing that I’m hoping to see develop is more collaborative projects that include faculty across different disciplines, but particularly across disciplines that maybe traditionally wouldn’t be working together,” Norton said. “I think that there are perhaps a lot of interesting points of connection between S2TC faculty that haven’t been fully recognized yet, and I’m excited to see those develop.”
Along the way, Norton will continue to lead by example, continuing her work with Procter & Gamble and pursuing new lines of research focusing on skin health with an emphasis on the risks of certain types of skin cancer in communities of color.
“Prof. Norton is a natural choice to lead the S2TC into its next stage of growth,” said Vice President for Research Patrick A. Limbach. “The Office of Research is proud to support this truly institutional collaborative, one that has amazing potential to translate cross-disciplinary research into real-world impact. With Heather as the inaugural academic director, UC’s ST2C is under the direction of a faculty member who is the ideal combination of a world-class scholar and someone who truly understands and values team-based research and scholarship.”
Norton’s collegially minded ambition is one of her strengths, according to Sarah Jackson, PhD, the head of Norton’s home department, Anthropology. Jackson sees her colleague as the ideal leader for the cross-campus, interdisciplinary initiative. “Heather is one of those terrific and perceptive researchers who is able to able to understand, appreciate and link research that takes disparate approaches,” Jackson said. “I foresee her doing a fantastic job of bringing people together and identifying new synergies at the Collaborative.”
As Norton brings anthropology’s interdisciplinary approach to working alongside medical professionals, engineers and designers, she envisions advances in S2TC that will benefit students and researchers for years to come.
After having served as an undergraduate director and as current co-Director of the Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) program at UC, Norton understands the value of including students in research projects for both short and long-term success. “I feel very strongly about how transformative research experiences can be for both undergraduate and graduate students. I also know that several S2TC projects with P&G specifically include funding to support student research, and I would strongly encourage that our faculty and industry partners consider including student funding as part of their future projects. It is a relatively small cost that can have a huge impact on a student’s research trajectory.”
She also sees ways in which engaging students can invigorate institutional innovation at UC through S2TC. “I could envision that at some point the S2TC works with faculty across multiple colleges to develop a graduate certificate in skin science,” Norton said. “I think this is an exciting goal to work towards, and believe that in addition to providing value for students, it will also help to further connect researchers in the skin science community here at UC.”