Huntsville Official Tried to Calm Amy Bishop in Phone Call About Her Future

February 16, 2010

The head of the technology-transfer office at the University of Alabama at Huntsville says he tried a week ago to reassure an anxious Amy Bishop that the biology professor, now accused of killing three colleagues, could keep working on potentially profitable inventions even if she lost her tenure bid.

Kannan S. Grant, director of the Office of Technology Commercialization, said Ms. Bishop called him on February 6 initially to discuss a new invention idea. But Mr. Grant said he had also spent time on the call "trying to calm her down" over her tenure dispute, which was a concern she had raised with him in the past, even though he made clear to her that it was a matter over which he had no control.

Ms. Bishop is suspected of shooting to death three colleagues on Friday, including the chairman of the biological-sciences department, Gopi K. Podila. She learned months ago that the university had rejected her bid for tenure, and since then she had pursued a series of appeals.

Aside from her troubles securing tenure, Ms. Bishop appeared to be enjoying and having some early success as an inventor, colleagues including Mr. Grant have said.

The president of the university, David B. Williams, made a point in a November 2008 blog posting of citing one of her proposed inventions, a device for studying neural cells, as a prime example of the benefits of research universities.

The device, named the InQ, will allow for nerve cells to be grown and monitored in the long term, with remotely controlled monitors and cameras, inside a single sealed unit. The idea was borne of Ms. Bishop's frustration with the century-old technology involving the standard Petri dish, which requires more hands-on care and monitoring and yet still allows nerve cells to survive only a day or two.

Ms. Bishop conceived of the InQ about four years ago, and she has been a director of Prodigy Biosystems, the company formed to build the InQ under license from the university. The company's chairman, Richard E. Reeves, has predicted net revenue of $25-million by 2014 from the InQ, due to go on sale this summer at $30,000 apiece.

But even before the shootings on Friday, it wasn't clear if such projections would be met. The chief executive of Prodigy, Aaron Hammons, said in a November 2007 interview with an industry blog that he was expecting to receive initial patents on the InQ by early 2008, and the device to be available for sale by early 2009. But the patents have yet to be obtained, Mr. Reeves said this week, explaining that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office "is very slow these days."

Mr. Hammons said in the 2007 interview that optimism about sales had been strongly driven by the ability of Ms. Bishop to generate interest among her colleagues at other institutions. She is "very well connected in the community," Mr. Hammons said, and two years of her describing the idea publicly left the company regularly fielding calls about the timing of the device's availability.

Ms. Bishop was so successful in drawing such interest that company leaders began to fear that a competitor might "swoop in" and replicate the idea ahead of Prodigy, Mr. Hammons said. "The technology is not new," he acknowledged. "It's just we're putting it all together in a convenient package."

'I Did Not See This Coming'

Mr. Grant, the tech-transfer official at Huntsville, said Ms. Bishop had discussed at least two other invention ideas in the two years since he came to the university. The latest, which she called on February 6 to discuss, is a technology she calls "induced adaptive resistance," Mr. Grant said. The idea, he said, is for a compound to be applied to neurons to make them more resistant to degradation. As with the InQ, it could also be useful for patients with neurodegenerative disease, he said.

Another idea, from about a year ago, called the "neuristor," involved combining neurons with an electronic chip in a bid to mimic brain intelligence, Mr. Grant said. The idea, a possible boost to the development of robotics, did not move beyond the conceptual stage, he said.

In the February 6 call, Ms. Bishop was heavily distracted by the imminent ruling on her appeal of the denial of tenure, Mr. Grant said. "She said, 'I can't do anything until I learn what the result of the tenure process is,'" he said.

Ms. Bishop stood to collect royalties on the InQ even if she left Huntsville, and Mr. Grant said he had promised her the university would help her develop future inventions even if she moved elsewhere. Ms. Bishop said Harvard University, where she had earned her doctorate and later worked, had offered to hire her back if she failed to win tenure at Huntsville, and she said she also was considering joining a former colleague at the University of Oregon, Mr. Grant said.

Mr. Grant spoke with The Chronicle from Malaysia, where he went on vacation shortly after the February 6 telephone call. Soon after arriving in the country, he said he was watching CNN, noticed the reports from Huntsville, and called home to learn more details.

"My first reaction was, I can't believe it," he said. "I guess it was more like, Wow, I did not see this coming." Mr. Grant, who said he also had worked closely with the victims, said "nothing made any sense" about the attack.

"My conversations with Amy had always been interesting and had always been very cordial and polite," he said. "You think you know somebody, and all of sudden they do something like this."