July 30, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! Lights! Camera! Action!

Join scientist and photographer Kyle Wilcox on his never-ending pursuit to capture the world around (and inside) us.

Kyle Wilcox, Ph.D., scientist, translational imaging, pharmacology, AbbVie, developing film and silver gelatin prints in his basement darkroom.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Kyle Wilcox, Ph.D., scientist, translational imaging, pharmacology, AbbVie.

All his life, Kyle Wilcox has focused a trained eye on nature’s complicated patterns and the mysterious spaces in between. With a camera always at the ready, he strives to capture that rarest of image revealing the beauty in life’s puzzling connections. His mission as a scientist is no different: observe, explore and identify breaks from the norm that reveal exciting new avenues of scientific discovery. The only difference is that in the lab … the images reveal what’s inside the body.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

I never wanted to fake anything or appear inauthentic – to pretend I’m something I’m not or claim to know something I don’t. I think I needed to live a life that was anchored to something solid. I guess this personality trait led me to gravitate toward the sciences because science is ultimately a tool for approaching what is true. There’s an old quote saying what we think of as science can be categorized as either physics or stamp collecting. Stamp collecting, which I take to mean memorizing or recording unconnected facts, has never appealed to me – I like to see myself in the physics camp concerned with how underlying “rules” lead to the patterns we observe in nature. Thinking about these patterns and what we can do with that understanding is what gets me excited. One cool thing about science today is that through ever-increasing computational power and access to massive datasets it is possible to extract and interpret non-obvious patterns from things that previously seemed like stamp collecting.

Your work involves translational imaging. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly this entails?

We use two types of imaging called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET). MRI is very good at looking at the structures inside the body and PET is very good at looking at the biochemistry that is going on in there – the chemical reactions and molecular events that govern life, viewed inside a living being. Most people have probably heard of MRI and PET since they are commonly used in hospitals, but we use them in our research to see inside the body to help us develop new medicines. My individual role is to perform this PET biochemistry in the lab to give us confidence in how we interpret the PET signal coming from inside the body. And that’s just one small part of what’s required to pull off our imaging studies - we have an amazing multidisciplinary team that includes imaging scientists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists and medical experts.

Our department is called Translational Imaging because the imaging methods we use allow us to apply (or translate) what we learn about biology from the research lab into a medical setting. The development of new therapies is very complex and often takes a long time, so part of our mission is to look for ways to be more efficient – to get new medicines to the patients who need them sooner. Imaging helps us do that.

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

Train yourself to recognize dogmatic thinking (especially your own) and become comfortable changing your opinion when you receive better information. Sometimes it’s the people who are the surest of themselves who are the most catastrophically wrong.

What was the last science-related book you read?

I read Ready Player One with my son recently. I liked all the 80s references because of nostalgia for my childhood. The warning it offers about the dangerous allure of a virtual world is a good one and timely because of how many opportunities we already have to escape our everyday lives through technologies that turn out to be quite addictive. It is something I worry about when raising kids in this tech-crazy world. While people have been making stories about aspects of living in simulations for a long time, from “The Matrix” to “Westworld” and even “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” I think this book offers a plausible description of something along these lines that will likely occur.

What’s one thing that you think is surprising about your job?

My 2nd grader and I have similar work lives. His job is to learn, and most of his learning is self-guided, through online resources and watching videos about the stuff he’s interested in. I also have to constantly learn new things and I often end up watching a lot of online tutorial videos to educate myself quickly on the fundamentals of a certain topic. Sometimes what I need to learn ends up being something I probably should remember from college and I find myself watching videos targeted toward pre-med students cramming for their MCATs. Things have changed, and I’m blown away by the idea that someone halfway around the world and I could both be bettering ourselves at the same time using the same technology – it’s kind of awesome.

Does the way you approach your work carry over into your life outside the office in any interesting or unexpected ways?

All my life I’ve been able to find four-leaf clovers. My wife says that my brain works differently than other people’s and I’ve been told I’m good at pattern recognition, but I think that must be a common trait of people who end up as scientists. I’m also a photographer and carry a camera around wherever I go, waiting to see something interesting. Sometimes, what seemed interesting at the time translates into the picture, which is nice, but the pictures I’m actually hoping for are those rare ones that reveal something unexpected that I could never have planned. For me, clover hunting and photography are systematic pursuits where, through patience and practice, I end up looking beyond the obvious for breaks in the normal pattern of things. It’s akin to the “hmm, that’s strange” moment leading to scientific discoveries.

It seems you are quite taken by photography. Can you tell us a little more about this extracurricular hobby?

I have a darkroom in my basement where I develop film and make silver gelatin prints (where you project a negative on photosensitive paper and develop the image in a series of chemical baths). I learned how to work with film in college art classes and only got back into it in the last 5 or 6 years after a flirtation with digital photography. For me, working with film is more fulfilling than digital because the fact that I can’t examine the results until a later time (sometimes much later) transforms every click of the shutter into an act of faith in my skills, senses and judgement. There’s also a meditative quality to working in the darkroom that I appreciate and, after all these years, it’s still a magical feeling to see a picture emerging in a tray of developer. Just like in my lab at work, there is a hefty dose of calculation and planning involved to make a print. But equally important is intuition and a practiced eye looking for cues that things are proceeding according to plan; plus, some extemporaneous fine tuning that leads to a finished product that I think will stand the test of time and the scrutiny of others.

If you could talk to the 10-year-old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself about your career?

What makes you valuable is the combination of skills you bring to the table. Don’t worry about being the best at any given thing as long as you find and develop a variety of skills you’re genuinely good at. Nowadays, people call this a “talent stack” or “skill stack” but I think that’s just a rebranding of the old phrase “well-rounded.” Take pride and an active role in being well rounded.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science rocks when it’s used to achieve good in the world, whether that’s to alleviate suffering or even just to open people’s eyes to the beauty behind something they take for granted. Like how popcorn pops (according to a probability distribution) or how we smell that it is burnt (molecules released from the popcorn collide with receptors in our noses). What really impresses me is when a talented group of people like AbbVie scientists orients their scientific skills in the same direction to achieve a shared goal. It’s exciting to see and I’m honored to be a part of it.

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Jaquelin Finley
Email: jaquelin.finley@abbvie.com
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