Vail resident receives national award for breakthrough in 3D printing
Callie Higgins of Vail is honored with 2021 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Emerging Leaders
As a young woman, Vail resident Callie I. Higgins said she was always searching for answers as to how the world worked, driven by a thirst for some kind of rhyme or reason to it all.
She was drawn to her first physics class like a moth to a flame and she never looked back.
“Physics — it’s everything. It’s the way that our entire world functions,” Higgins said in an interview Wednesday. “All of a sudden, finally, once I took a physics class I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the backbone of how you can understand the world.’”
From that moment on, she knew her future was in physics, but Higgins said she never could have imagined it would lead her to where she is today — a recent recipient of the 2021 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for Emerging Leaders.
For those unfamiliar with the Sammie Awards, as they are often called, Higgins accepted the award in front of a crowd of the nation’s most prestigious scientists, sharing a stage with the researchers who identified the spike protein needed to make COVID-19 vaccines.
Higgins was awarded for her work in inventing “a groundbreaking technology to detect and remedy microscopic flaws that threaten the safety and reliability of 3D-printed products, potentially revolutionizing the medical, plastics, coatings, optics and additive manufacturing fields,” according to a recent press release from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Even two weeks after the Oct. 28 awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Higgins struggled to find the words to describe this recognition of her work on 3D printing. She landed on “surreal” and “deeply humbling.”
“I couldn’t believe that I was sharing the same space with all these incredible people, let alone the same stage,” she said. “I was like, ‘How is this even possible?’”
Higgins grew up in a small town in northern Idaho before getting her bachelor’s degree in physics, with a minor in math, at the University of San Diego. It was there that she met her husband Blake Higgins, who was born and raised in Vail.
The mountains were calling, so Higgins decided to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her doctoral degree is in electrical engineering, with specialties in optics and material science.
It was in the CU Boulder labs that Higgins found her passion — a dynamic but fairly unexplored form of 3D printing.
Branching off into the unknown
Higgins begins to speak quickly when she is asked about this work, the animation in her voice growing as she details the implications of using “optics or laser” physics to build 3D models “molecule-by-molecule” instead of molding preexisting materials into a desired shape.
“Photopolymer additive manufacturing is a type of 3D printing that starts with like a liquid resin and then you shine light into that resin and wherever you shine light that liquid material will solidify,” she explained. “It’s like when you go into the dentist, and you get a filling. It’s that same process they use to put that filling in and then use that little cure lamp, but applying it to building up a 3D structure out of nothing.”
Higgins became hungry for more information about how the technique could be strengthened, expanded, and applied to life.
As she neared the completion of her doctorate, Higgins applied for a post-doctoral fellowship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She was awarded funding for the fellowship by the National Research Council based on an idea to go back and explore the fundamentals of this 3D printing technique.
The technology around 3D printing had been around for more than three decades when Higgins began the fellowship with NIST in 2017, but 30 years of patent protection had shrouded its potential applications — and potential downfalls — in mystery.
She soon found herself on the front lines of a field that began to draw the attention of industry professionals, scientists, and researchers alike, she said.
“I could really envision the impact that this type of manufacturing could have going down the road 10 or 20 years,” Higgins said. “I realized that if we don’t develop a good foundation for this type of manufacturing and this type of regenerative medicine … the field would not reach its full potential.”
After finishing her post-doctoral fellowship, Higgins continued this work through a “term appointment” with NIST, the equivalent of being a non-tenured faculty member, she said.
As it turned out, going back to the basics unveiled a groundbreaking discovery.
Turning weakness into strength
Higgins and her colleagues found that the traditional 3D printing process produced “undetected, microscopic” manufacturing flaws that, while acceptable in some industries, created “the potential for catastrophic part failure” when it came to the printing of tissues or organs, according to a description of Higgins’s work included in her Sammie Award honoree profile.
3D printing is done in layers and Higgins and her team discovered the potential for weaknesses in printed products where those layers meet.
In understanding the weaknesses in these barriers, Higgins and her colleagues also discovered a world of possibilities to remedy, control, and reverse engineer this part of the printing process. This has the potential to change the world of tissue engineering as we know it, she said.
“You can 3D print the right mechanical and chemical cues in the right locations for these cells such that, all of a sudden, this tissue that wouldn’t regrow, you can implant a representative issue in that region, and it functions better than say a knee replacement,” Higgins explained.
The discovery brings the concept of 3D printing viable organ transplants closer than ever before and could also be used to generate representative tissues for more accurate testing of pharmaceutical drugs. This would revolutionize the clinical trial process and eliminate the need for animal testing, which is not always an accurate portrayal of the effect that drugs or other treatments will have on humans, she said.
Still, it is important that we not get ahead of ourselves, she said.
“We really are focusing on trying to build out this foundational knowledge so that the field doesn’t become all hype and then consumers lose confidence,” Higgins said.
The recognition of a lifetime
In two weeks, Higgins will move into a tenured role with NIST as a materials research engineer after having finally “earned (her) stripes” in a big way — like, taking selfies with Dr. Anthony Fauci big.
Higgins had been living in the Front Range since attending CU Boulder, but she and her husband moved to Vail in July.
In the fashion of a true mountain woman, Higgins was climbing Denali in Alaska with her husband when the honorees were announced. She was just getting back into cell service, fresh off the high of climbing North America’s tallest peak, when she got a call from her supervisor telling her to reach out to the Partnership for Public Service about the award.
“We are extremely proud of Callie’s accomplishments and recognition with a Samuel J. Heyman Medal,” James K. Olthoff, who is currently serving as undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and director of NIST, said in the organization’s press release.
“Her creativity, innovation and collaborative efforts have opened up incredible new possibilities for 3D printing, and her leadership and dedication serve as an inspiration to young researchers everywhere,” Olthoff said.
Higgins was one of seven people honored with a Sammie Award in the emerging leaders category out of 29 finalists and more than 350 nominations.
“In addition to her keen scientific intellect and exceptional creativity, (Higgins) displays remarkable leadership and team building skills that have greatly expanded the impact of her science and stimulated unique partnerships within her field,” Stephanie Hooker, acting director of NIST’s Material Measurement Laboratory, said in the release. “Her recognition as an emerging leader with this Sammie is extremely well-deserved, and I am excited to see what amazing achievements are yet to come in her future.”
Standing on that stage at the Kennedy Center was something Higgins never would have dreamed of, she said, especially coming up in a field where female role models were few and far between.
“I doubted myself nearly every stage of the way,” she said. “When you don’t see people in these leadership positions that look like you, or are like you, it’s really difficult to see yourself in those spots.”
“Receiving this emerging leader award as a scientist and as a woman in the field is really an exciting opportunity to showcase to young girls, like, ‘Hey, you can do it. You don’t have to look any specific way to be really successful and be a leader and be a scientist,’” she said.
To that end, Higgins has set her sights on leading a new partnership between NIST and the Colorado School of Mines to bring bright young minds together and give them access to the technology and leadership available in a government lab environment.
“It’s just so rewarding to be able to give back in this way,” she said. “I get to do research to better people’s lives … I think there are very few people that can say that and I feel so fortunate to be in this role.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org