Meet 20Lighter Co-Founder, Jessica Barnes Ph.D. Doctor Barnes’ research background was integral in the development of 20Lighter’s award winning weight loss programs.
In this blog post, I will introduce myself and tell you about my background and the unlikely story of how I end up as a co-founder of the 20Lighter weight loss program. My name is Jessica Barnes and I grew up in the suburbs between Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island. In school as a child and teenager, Science was always my easiest class. I was interested in the topics, the concepts came naturally and I really enjoyed putting in the effort to learn about how things worked. Looking back, it’s not that surprising given my father was always tinkering, rebuilding cars, redoing the house. He was always tinkering with a project that involved detail and required some level of improvisation. When he was in school back in the sixties, they really didn’t encourage rowdy boys to be book-smart, so although he never went to college, the material world that is the scientific angle of things were always a part of our life.
He played billiards- again all about the angles. He rebuilt hot rods, taking apart complicated systems and rebuilding them in an effort to understand how things worked. He refinished the walls with tongue and groove boards, teaching patience, attention to detail, and working towards producing something to be proud of. One particular project I remember, he wanted to customize the circular landing at the foot of the stairs to match the oak flooring, so we spent literally hours in the bathroom building a scaffold and bent a long oak board with steam and hot water and c clamps. That out-of-the-box puzzle solving (on a practical level) environment really primed me to have an interest in and affinity for Science and math and while today there’s really a focus to develop STEM education paths for girls, in the eighties and nineties it wasn’t quite mainstream yet. I chose to pursue my undergraduate bachelor’s degree in biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
A small, highly rigorous technical college in central Massachusetts you probably have never heard of… and while you may not have heard of Worcester Polytech, it has an impressive history in Science and engineering. Robert Goddard, often referred to as the father of modern rocketry, graduated from WPI in 1908. He was the first individual to use liquid fuel as a propellant for rockets, which is widely regarded as one of the key advancements ushering in the modern age of space flight. WPI’s fire protection engineering program is one of only three in the country and of particular interest to me, it’s project based curriculum offered the opportunity for me to tap into the very powerful Boston biotech belt to get my hands dirty and build some real life laboratory experience. I was honored to spend time at companies working on projects including an anti-TNF antibody that eventually made its way onto the market (and is still currently used as an arthritis therapeutic today) and the validation of what is now referred to as “the wet prep”, an automated cervical cancer screening tests now standard of care for all women in the United States.
After finishing my undergraduate work, I decided it was time to move out of the Northeast and I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for graduate school… the big 10, Midwest farm country, agricultural and veterinary programs with facilities bigger than my entire undergraduate campus… Oh yes, and people who actually drove in a courteous manner, amazing! I narrowed my interests and decided to pursue my degree in neurobiology, the study of the brain. Mostly I chose that because it’s the least understood aspect of the body and, by far, the most complicated. So I told myself if I could master that I could master anything. My thesis focused on the hypothalamus, a tiny area of the brain, important in many critical aspects of metabolism and behavior, and I further focused on the molecular regulation and control of Circadian Rhythms. While most people might recognize circadian rhythms as a sleep-wake cycle, the biology of Circadian rhythms extend far beyond the brain to each cell in your body and encompasses a wide range of processes from gene expression all the way to behavior.
During and after my time as a graduate student at the U of I, the linking of dysregulation of Circadian Rhythms with cancer and metabolic disorders began to make news, and these principles I will draw upon heavily later as we build the 20Lighter Program.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, I spent valuable time as a post-doctoral fellow in the pediatric brain tumor clinic at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. Yes, once again back to New England. Despite my best efforts to explore the country, I just could not resist the opportunity to learn from Dr. Judah Folkman. If you have an interest in inspiring stories and against the grain geniuses, I strongly urge you to take a look at the book called “Dr. Folkman’s War”. It’s not a rosy glasses type of discussion. It describes how high the odds are against success in medical and scientific research, how incredibly vicious the competition is for federal grants, how entrenched the skepticism is about any genuine original thinking, and how polluted by politics and money the process of drug development actually is. Interestingly, a lot of what this book describes Dr. Gerry Dembrowski and I have witnessed firsthand as we launched our program. Big Pharma, billion dollar diet corporations, the food and beverage industry, and unfortunately a lot of physicians who advise and consult with those groups, are all plainly aware that a program that addresses the underlying issues of weight gain and metabolic dysfunction is a threat to their limitless income.
So unsurprisingly, it’s an incredibly difficult path to forge to gain traction in showing what we have built in the 20Lighter Program actually works, works better than the industry standard, and helps people feel like their old selves again. Ahhh, but I have digressed.
My time at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was amazing and I specifically spent my time developing novel imaging for brain tumors and conducting pre-clinical testing of experimental therapeutics (that’s just a fancy way of saying I tried to identify new cancer drugs). After I finished my post-doc, I spent some time on Wall Street as an analyst reviewing the scientific aspect of biotech and Pharma company pipelines and portfolios. I wanted to learn how one makes a business out of biology. In my experience with physiology, molecular medicine, and early drug development gave me the foundation and understanding to perform deep dives into clinical trials of new drugs, to make educated predictions of outcomes of those trials, to assess the markets for products as they moved along in their developmental lifespan, and identify regulatory hurdles and opportunities for investment.
Later when an opportunity to join a small venture capital group presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Venture capital was a most exciting area to me because I would have an opportunity to actually shape the field; to start and build companies with therapeutics our group felt were the most promising and most valuable. After a few years and three and a half successful startups, our group dissolved and provided me the opportunity to really reevaluate what I wanted to do with all my knowledge and experience. At that time, Dr. Dembrowski was putting together a weight loss program and he wanted it to be really cutting edge; to go beyond just dieting and pre-packaged foods, to impact how people were feeling, to address the fatigue and mental fog and aches and pains and other chronic issues that go hand in hand with what now constitutes the average modern diet, busy lifestyles, and of course the constant bombardment of responsibilities we all face each day.
We took everything we could find in the scientific literature, the history of dieting and existing interventions, and all the new groundbreaking research on areas of human physiology that play a role in metabolism, appetite, and energy production. You name it, we researched it and dissected it all. We looked for patterns and interrelated themes, and discovered our partnership just happened to be the perfect match of traditional Scientific experience, physiological understanding and non-traditional holistic and homeopathic expertise. So as it turned out, my background of research into genes and proteins and organs and systems, and my time spent learning about the FDA and drug development, all these different seemingly unrelated components became critical as we worked together to build a cutting edge totally out of the box program.
So I will wrap things up with this post with a few closing comments. First, for all those young women out there, including my two beautiful daughters, who may be thinking of a potential career in Science or math, don’t be afraid to dig in and find a niche that interests you. It’s worth the risk. It’s worth being called a nerd or uncool because you can really help people, and you can really make a difference in this world. And second, the road you set out on doesn’t always lead you where you think it will, but that doesn’t mean that the new place will be any less rewarding. I would never have guessed that I would wind up as a co-founder of a weight loss program, but in looking back on my experience, it provided the perspective and understanding to really put together something I’m incredibly proud of.