Esther Takeuchi: 2019 Graduate School Commencement Address

Author: Notre Dame News

Good morning everyone! I am delighted to share this wonderful occasion with you today. In particular, I am humbled to receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame, and I sincerely thank President Jenkins and all who supported my candidacy. I pledge to redouble my professional and personal efforts to be worthy of joining the proud ranks of Notre Dame alumni, including the newest Notre Dame alumni honored here today.

Isaac Newton once reflected that his contributions to science were enabled by the work which preceded him. I can envision that all of you present today have the potential to do great work, so I wish to take a few minutes to provide you with a foundation from which you might make the world a better place.

My career started much in the same way as yours will, with a solid graduate education in the field of your choice. I had little idea what my future held for me, but I believed that life would provide me with opportunities to do good work, as long as I provided constant effort and a constructive, positive attitude.

My first job after graduation was in a large petrochemical company, where I drew directly on my knowledge of organic chemistry, which was my major in graduate school. After a year, I had the opportunity to conduct postdoctoral research with a university electrochemist, and I felt seizing an opportunity to intellectually grow in a field new to me would provide me with additional career opportunities in the future. One postdoctoral research experience in electrochemistry led to another postdoctoral experience, and in a short time I had worked with two major electrochemistry research groups in the U.S.

Because of my knowledge of organic chemistry and electrochemistry, I was recruited to join a small family-owned company which manufactured batteries for implantable pacemakers. The founder of the company, Wilson Greatbatch, also the name of the company, was the person who held the original patents for the implantable pacemaker, which he licensed to a large medical manufacturing firm. It is important to realize that at that time, the notion of implantable battery-powered devices was entirely new, and he realized pacemakers would need batteries that were special and not currently available. Thus, the business he started was to design and manufacture batteries for medical devices, and I was one of the earlier Ph.D. employees to join the company.

Although I had no previous experience in the science of batteries, I was thrilled to be a part of a company which was dedicated to such an important enterprise which could change people’s life span and quality of life. Since Wilson Greatbatch Limited was a small and young company when I joined (~150 people), I had the opportunity to converse on numerous occasions with the founder of the company. He was a firm believer in innovation, constantly curious and driven to do right by the ultimate customer, the patient.

When I started at the company, I had no idea what my research would involve nor how my life would unfold. All I knew is that my knowledge and work experience would take me places I could not have predicted upon graduation. For example, I had not planned to pursue medically related research as a profession, but my background and fate provided me with the opportunity to make a contribution. I would meet this challenge as I met all challenges, with hard work, optimism, and a positive attitude.

My first project was the development of a battery to power the implantable cardiac defibrillator. Most of you are familiar with the external defibrillator. The device has paddles that are put on a patient’s chest in case of a heart attack due to cardiac arrhythmia. A large shock is delivered to the patient’s chest to restore their heart to its normal rhythm. The implantable cardiac defibrillator was invented for people who had a tendency for this condition as there are only a few minutes to revive someone. The implantable device would travel with them at all times inside their chest. The implantable cardiac defibrillator really is a marvelous device: It monitors the heart continuously and the device delivers an electrical shock if needed to save the person’s life. The device was demonstrated, but could not be completely tested and released because there were no batteries available to power the device appropriately. At the time I started this project, the battery being used only lasted one year. We knew that doing surgery on heart patients every year was not viable clinically. The goal for the battery was five years of life, enough power to defibrillate a patient, and small enough to be implantable. Imagine a battery only slightly larger than your cell phone battery that could last 5 years without recharge.

At my company, we only had experience with implantable pacemaker batteries. Thus, I compared an implantable pacemaker with an implantable cardiac defibrillator: a pacemaker delivers a small amount of energy to the heart regularly, in order to control the rhythm of the beating heart, while a defibrillator delivers a large amount of energy to the heart in order to restore a fibrillating heart to regular rhythm. The amount of energy a defibrillator battery provides in one event is approximately one million times the amount of energy a pacemaker delivers for one heartbeat. Using one million pacemaker batteries connected together is not a viable option! It was clear we needed an entirely new battery, one which could deliver an unheard-of amount of energy in the medical field, safely and reliably, with no harm to the patient. We set off to do just that and pursued the project.

I can still remember standing in lab wearing lab glasses, gloves, a light blue lab coat, and hearing the news of the first human implant in Australia of a battery that we had made. That was remarkably exciting news, and we were hopeful that things would continue to move ahead. We knew that the next big challenge was getting the battery approved by the FDA for human implant in the U.S. and that was our next target. Each step along the way required moving toward the next goal, addressing the challenges in front of us and to keep going. The battery enabled the widespread adoption of the implantable cardiac defibrillator. The device is so effective that clinical trials were halted as it could not be justified to deny the device to any patient who could benefit from it. Now, more than 25 years later, the battery technology we developed remains dominant and has been responsible for saving many millions of lives.

In 2004, I was honored to be elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, for technology and engineering necessary to take the basic science of lithium metal and silver vanadium oxide, the two major components of my battery, and turn it into a real product, which saved millions of lives, young and old, and caused the small company I first joined to go to an IPO and be traded as a public company on the New York Stock Exchange! In 2009, I was honored to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama for my work with the implantable cardiac defibrillator battery. Candidly, I never envisioned any of my research to result in me going to the White House and being honored by the president of the United States! On a personal note, there are still few women in engineering, technology, and invention, and with the recognition I have received, I am honored to be a role model for future women who aspire to use their STEM talents towards invention.

After a wonderful career in industry, I was invited to become a faculty member in a university and I seized upon the opportunity. Although I had great experiences in industry, I was also driven and in some ways limited by industrial realities such as sales, marketing, change of management, and profit margins. In academics I can conduct basic research on the science and technology of energy storage with potential for many applications, including medical devices, electric vehicles, and batteries for the electric grid to enable more widespread adoption of renewable energy generation such as solar and wind power. I now have the opportunity to use my knowledge from industry to design new ways to educate graduate students, which will enable academics and national laboratories to address issues of critical importance to industry, without involving the students as industrial employees. Thus, the students are still learning basic science and publishing, but they are working collaboratively and across disciplines. They understand the needs of industry without becoming industrial employees.

What piece of advice do I wish to share with you all? Love what you do. Nurture your innate skills, whatever they are; cherish your abilities; welcome new opportunities; and finish all of your tasks with hard work, determination, and optimism.

My career is defined by my desire to do the best that I could no matter what I am doing, to focus on taking the next step, and to keep going in spite of any challenges or frustrations. Any path to do something meaningful includes challenges. It is critical to keep moving forward. It is important to appreciate the journey as well as the goal. When I started on the project to develop a battery for the implantable cardiac defibrillator, on a broad level I knew it was important. However, we did not know if we would succeed. The research and development was filled with challenges as well as successes. I pursued the goal and stayed on the journey not contemplating some future glory, but motivated to do the best that I could given the challenge.

Sometimes the advice that I hear is: Do what you love. That is a very different statement from love what you do. I have even heard students talk about their own dilemma, where they do not like what they are good at doing and are not good at doing what they love. This thinking needs to be modified. If you are good at something, glory in it. You have abilities that are a gift. It is your responsibility to use your abilities to make the world a better place. Take pride in yourself, take pride in your abilities. If you are good at something, take it as a sign. You are to use your abilities and your talents to the fullest extent possible. At any time, you can only love what you know from your experiences to date. If you pursue what you love, you are limited by your own knowledge base. If you love what you do, you can continue to grow, expand, and adapt as your knowledge and experiences grow.

Take pride in yourself. Respect the talents and abilities that you have been given. It is your responsibility to develop them, and then to use them for the good of others. As you continue to learn, continue to grow, and use your talents constructively, you will without a doubt love what you do.

That is your goal: Do the best you can to use your abilities, enjoy every minute of the journey, and love what you do.