When the National Academy of Engineering met Oct. 4 for its annual meeting, awards were presented to two individuals for their extraordinary impact on the engineering profession. One of the recipients was Furman University alumna Frances S. Ligler ’72, winner of the Simon Ramo Founders Award.
The award recognizes Ligler “for the invention and development of portable optical biosensors, service to the nation and profession, and educating the next, more diverse generation of engineers.” She is the third woman to receive the NAE award and is the second Furman graduate, having been preceded by Charles Townes ’35.
Ligler is the Ross Lampe Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University and the School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She earned bachelor’s degrees from Furman in biology and chemistry, then went on to secure two doctorates from Oxford University, one in biochemistry and another tied to her globally significant contributions to biosensors.
In 2017, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) for her groundbreaking work in portable optical biosensors. The NIHF has named fewer than 600 to its ranks and it represents over 10 million U.S. patents. Ligler holds 35 U.S. patents. Her inventions have been directly commercialized in 11 biosensor products used in food production plants, clinics in developing countries, pollution cleanup sites, and key areas for military and homeland security.
Known for her tenacity, she said in a related Furman story, “I’ve been told something was impossible three times, and every time I figured out a way to do it.”
Ligler works in the fields of biosensors, microfluidics, tissue-on-chip and regenerative medicine and has conducted research in biochemistry, immunology and analytical chemistry. She has over 400 publications to her name including four books, and has served on editorial boards for nine journals. Numerous university faculty and over 60 postdoctoral fellows have benefited from her mentoring, and she has co-published research with approximately 200 undergraduates.
Prior to joining the joint department in 2013, Ligler served 28 years at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and since 1995, held the post of U.S. Navy senior scientist for biosensors and biomaterials. Earlier in her career, she worked in leadership roles in cellular immunology at DuPont. She has served on the board of trustees at Furman and is on the academic advisory board for Plaksha University, a new engineering college in India.
Ligler was elected to the NAE in 2005, serving on the NAE Council from 2014 to 2020. She is a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the SPIE, and the National Academy of Inventors. She actively supports NIHF’s Collegiate Inventors Competition and flagship program for K-6 students, Camp Invention.
In 2003, Ligler was recognized by the Christopher Columbus Foundation with its Homeland Security Award, and by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Rank of Distinguished Senior Professional. In 2012, President Obama honored her with the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Senior Professional.
The American Chemical Society selected her for its Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Analytical Chemistry in 2017. In 2014 and 2018, she received honorary doctorates from the Agricultural University of Athens, Greece, and Furman University, respectively.
See Ligler as she gives her socially distanced acceptance remarks for the Simon Ramo Founders Award.