Jennifer Blain Christen is an associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, where she teaches students about circuits and oversees electrical engineering research. Along with her many ASU faculty duties, she maintains involvement in professional organizations and runs a startup venture focused on rapid, low-cost medical diagnostics.
Blain Christen’s accomplishments in teaching, research and volunteering her time to better society through engineering and technical professional groups made her a natural fit to win the Joseph C. Palais Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award for the 2022–23 academic year.
“I was very shocked and honored to be selected,” she says.
The Palais Award, established in 2016 by its namesake, electrical engineering Professor Emeritus Joseph Palais, celebrates School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering faculty who demonstrate all-around excellence in research, teaching and community service.
“Jennifer is an inspiration with her microelectronics research on devices that can save lives and better the health of society,” says Stephen Phillips, the school’s director. “She is a great example of how our faculty can create a brighter future for individuals around the world.”
Improving health through electrical engineering research
Blain Christen started at ASU in 2008 as an assistant professor. She directs ASU’s BioElectrical Systems and Technology Group, which conducts research in bioelectronics development to improve human health.
The group is currently working to adapt portable point-of-care diagnostic systems to detect new diseases, such as viruses, when they are discovered. Another device the team created monitors infants within their first hours of life to improve the detection of neurological disabilities such as cerebral palsy. The goal is to use this early detection to improve medical care for infants born with these neurological conditions, giving them a better quality of life.
“Having had three very different and complex births and a cousin very close to my age with cerebral palsy, I feel gifted with opportunities to work on projects that mean so much to me,” Blain Christen says.
She also co-directs both the Research Experience for Undergraduates and Research Experience for Teachers programs in ASU’s Sensor Signal and Information Processing Center, or SenSIP. The programs give students and teachers experience in cutting-edge research in machine learning as well as sensors and signal processing, which involves the processing of data like medical images and physiological measurements.
Blain Christen also volunteers her time to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. She is an associate editor of the IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems and serves as a chair for groups within the IEEE: Women in Circuits and Systems, which supports career development for those early in their electrical engineering careers, especially women and minorities, and the Biomedical and Life Science Circuits and Systems Technical Committee, which encourages advancements in biomedical electronics.
Engineering a better future for humanity
Michael Kozicki, a professor of electrical engineering at ASU who nominated Blain Christen for the Palais Award, says she deserves the recognition for her contributions to electrical engineering and her caring treatment of people.
“She’s not only an accomplished researcher, a superb teacher, a leader, entrepreneur and a consummate professional who serves the community with fervor and diligence, but she also cares about people in a way that very few individuals do,” Kozicki says. “She is so generous with her time and effort, going well out of her way to help.”
Even as a child, Blain Christen wanted to help others in her career. But while public service occupations like teaching, nursing or first responders might be the first to come to mind as ways to serve society, Blain Christen was inclined toward electronics and computers. Combining her desire to help others with a passion for electronics led to her career in engineering electrical technology with a focus on improving health care.
“It was a journey to figure out how those two things could come together, but I feel like I have found that answer,” she says. “I feel very privileged to have had the opportunities that allowed me to follow my goals.”
An entrepreneurial electrical engineer
Outside of her work at ASU, Blain Christen co-founded FlexBioTech, a startup developing low-cost portable diagnostics for cancer and infectious diseases such as COVID-19 using DNA and RNA biomarkers in saliva. Blain Christen and the startup won the People’s Choice Award in the MedTech category at Washington University in St. Louis’ 2022 Equalize business pitch competition, which seeks to increase entrepreneurship among women in academia.
The goal for the diagnostic devices is to efficiently replace resource-intensive and expensive medical tests, such as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR — tests like those used to accurately diagnose COVID-19. These portable diagnostics aim to help people in communities without access to well-developed health care infrastructure.
Over the course of her career, Blain Christen’s achievements have also earned a Flinn Foundation Translational Research Seed Grants award and a Fulton Entrepreneurial Professors award.
Encouraging electrical engineering’s next generation
In addition to Blain Christen’s awards, professional organization service and research leadership, students also enjoy learning from her. Vi Nguyen, a biomedical engineering doctoral student conducting research with Blain Christen on medical diagnostic devices, appreciates her style of teaching.
“As a mentor, Dr. Blain Christen is easygoing and listens to every student’s ideas and concerns,” Nguyen says. “She is kind, humble, caring and truly the epitome of a good professor.”
Blain Christen also enjoys mentoring and teaching students about opportunities available to them, encouraging them to do what they believe is impossible.
“One of my best moments as an educator was seeing a comment from a young Black woman stating that she had always thought that she would have to choose between a PhD and becoming a mother,” Blain Christen says. “She said that after seeing me bring my kids along to the social events for the summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and how I was able to lead a research team, she no longer felt that she had to choose.”
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