Not many people can say their ingenuity has led to advances in fields from healthcare to military operations to food production – but National Inventors Hall of Fame® Inductee Frances Ligler can. She invented portable optical biosensors, a type of sensor that can “see” a change in light or color when a chemical or biological contaminant is detected.
Read on to learn more about how this visionary inventor made a big impact with small sensors.
A Lifelong Explorer
“I was very inspired by people who would go into a land where they had no experience or didn’t know what to expect … just to find out what was there,” Ligler said in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, she has always been interested in exploring nature. Her earliest adventures in nature began on her grandfather’s farm, where she grew up training horses.
As a high school student, Ligler won a science fair with a DNA-based project, and this motivated her to pursue a career path in science. She began making her way on such a path as she attended Furman University, where she graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. She later earned two doctorates from Oxford University – one in biochemistry in 1977 and the other in biosensor technology in 2000.
Ligler was drawn to the field of biochemistry because it offered her opportunities for hands-on exploration. “I went into biochemistry because I like doing things with my hands and finding out about life in a hands-on way,” she said.
A Pioneering Biochemist
From 1986 until 2013, Ligler brought her passion for exploration and innovation to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Here, she and her colleagues developed automated biosensors.
“A biosensor is a piece of hardware that incorporates a biological molecule to do detection,” explained Ligler. “The biological molecule can be an antibody or a piece of DNA or anything that can bind to a target that you’re interested in.”
Her team’s automated biosensors were configured for both the manual addition of samples and automated sampling. They could sample air while flying on a drone, or water while deployed on an unmanned undersea vehicle. These biosensors provided quick results in identifying and quantifying pathogens, toxins, pollutants, drugs or explosives.
Having developed a new chemistry for attaching biomolecules on sensor surfaces, Ligler integrated emerging technologies from an array of different fields to make optical biosensors smaller, more versatile and more automated. Portable optical biosensors have since been used in a wide variety of applications, from food production plants to pollutant cleanup sites to clinics in developing countries.
During Operation Desert Storm, Ligler played a major role in creating tactical sensors that could detect botulinum toxin and anthrax. By incorporating microfluidic channels and miniaturized optics, her work enabled portable devices into which users could simply inject a sample for testing.
Ligler and her team also developed the underlying technology for the RAPTOR portable, automated biosensor. This was tested by NATO for use in analyzing biological toxins and pathogens, and it was used to test water deliveries to U.S. Navy ships in Bahrain. Developing an even more advanced system, Ligler’s team incorporated a range of biological detector molecules to identify pathogens in food or indicators of disease in clinical samples.
An Innovative Leader
From 2013 to 2022, Ligler was a professor in the joint department of biomedical engineering at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2022, she became a professor and the Eppright Chair in Biomedical Engineering at Texas A&M University.
Ligler, who holds more than 30 U.S. patents, is dedicated to inspiring and empowering others – especially women and underserved youth – to be lifelong explorers and innovators by pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
"As I think about my legacy as an inventor, there's no greater tribute than being a mentor, role model and inspiration to future generations,” she said.
One of the many ways in which Ligler reaches even our nation’s youngest innovators is by staying actively involved in the National Inventors Hall of Fame mission to recognize inventors, promote creativity, and advance the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. Not only has she served as a Judge for the Collegiate Inventors Competition®, but she also has visited Camp Invention® program sites, sharing lessons and providing mentorship and encouragement to help young people build the innovative mindset they’ll need to be the next groundbreakers and world-changers.
Get to Know More Extraordinary Inventors
Since 1973, the National Inventors Hall of Fame has honored more than 600 of the world’s greatest creators and innovators. To explore more of their stories, lessons and legacies, visit our website.