At Intellectual Ventures Lab, Corrie Ortega is developing a diagnostic tool for same-day screen-and-treat programs for cervical cancer — and another test that counts mosquito sperm.

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Meet Corrie Ortega, a research scientist who is developing a test to support cervical cancer screening in impoverished communities.

What do you do? I work as a research scientist at Intellectual Ventures Lab. Since I joined IV in 2015, I have led a molecular diagnostic project to support cervical cancer screening in low-resource areas. We are developing a tool to support same-day screen-and-treat programs, which I’m passionate about because cervical cancer is such a burden in low-resource settings — and screening and treatment programs have proven so successful elsewhere.

This project is also personal for me. These are women my age who are like me, but don’t currently have access to the same quality of care. I’m trying to change this reality. We can absolutely provide tools for proper screening, and paired with effective treatments, we can dramatically decrease the burden of cervical cancer on women’s health.

What was your career path? My interest in global health and health equality really took off during my undergraduate studies. During this time, I was exposed to many realities outside of my own, and was acutely aware of the limitations and challenges in providing quality health services. Like many around me at that time, I was consumed. I spent my days asking question after question to understand the challenges and know the communities experiencing these burdens in order to devise ways to develop suitable, impactful technologies.

When I was working on my dissertation and finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Washington, I came across an IV job posting. I wanted to continue working toward humanitarian causes, but had been told by many that I would always be beholden to stakeholders and funding — but IV had none of those restrictions. People here are interested in doing work where the measurement of success is not a profit margin but the number of lives saved. I’ve been here ever since!

What’s a typical day like? The great thing about IV is that no two days look the same, but the goal is always the same: bring these technologies to the communities in need. To do this, we depend on so many collaborators and partners throughout all stages of development. A good portion of my day is often my team and I outlining technical strategy, running experiments and testing our latest prototypes, followed by many exciting conversations across many time zones to share progress with our partners and collaborators.

Corrie Ortega, left, of Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, and Matthew Selby, of QuantuMDx, test a diagnostic prototype that is being designed to support cervical cancer screening in low-resource settings. (Courtesy of QuantumDX and Intellectual Ventures)
Corrie Ortega, left, of Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, and Matthew Selby, of QuantuMDx, test a diagnostic prototype that is being designed to support cervical cancer screening in low-resource settings. (Courtesy of QuantumDX and Intellectual Ventures)

In addition, we are always searching for technologies or products that could help us achieve our goals faster, so I also spend a fair amount of time meeting with some amazing individuals who are doing some cutting-edge science. There are endless opportunities during the day to fully geek out.

What’s surprising about what you do? From my first day at IV, I’ve always been astounded by how much expertise, spanning many fields, is under one roof. I’m still very much at the beginning of my career, and I know that we’ve been able to accomplish so much and within ambitious timelines because I am surrounded by so many brilliant, experienced people. Our team has a very inclusive and collaborative style, and we’ve always felt empowered to try new things. Trying projects that might not work or have funding ripped away elsewhere is encouraged here.

And the breadth of the work is enormous but needed. I am working on one test for cervical cancer screening and simultaneously developing a different test to count mosquito sperm as a way to tell their age and whether a mosquito control program is working.

What’s the best part of the job? It’s honestly coming into the lab every day and knowing that my work — my successes and frustrations and discoveries — will help people. We’re living in a time of such rapid progress in technology and health, but low-resource countries are so often left behind. It’s very exciting for me to think of how my work will impact real lives, especially women like me.

And we have the best coffee beans and espresso machine. A lot of work happens in front of this machine. We call this space my office.

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