Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor of Bioengineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University. She is also Director of the award-winning Rice 360 Institute for Global Health and founder of Beyond Traditional Borders Program at Rice University. Rebecca received her B.S. in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and went on to receive her M.S. in Physics and PhD in Medical Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She served as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was the Cockrell Family Chair in Engineering, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. Rebecca has received many awards and honors during her career, including very recently being named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. Some of her other recent awards include the Pierre Galletti Award (the highest honor from The American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering), the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, and the Michael S. Feld Biophotonics Award from the Optical Society of America. She is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the Optical Society of America, and the National Academy of Inventors. Rebecca is with us today to tell us all about her journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (3:03)
When she’s not working, Rebecca loves to spend time with her children. Rebecca also enjoys getting up early in the morning to go running, and she often participates in half marathon and marathon races.
The Scientific Side (3:48)
Rebecca and her colleagues are developing technologies to improve healthcare as well as improve access to healthcare. They are dedicated to making medical technology less expensive and finding ways to modify medical technology so it can be used in different environments and settings across the world.
A Dose of Motivation (4:32)
For Rebecca, having an opportunity to visit healthcare settings, particularly in under-resourced areas is really motivating. Seeing the limitations in healthcare that exist in places all over the world inspires her to continue working to develop solutions to improve the medical care people receive.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (6:16)
Growing up, math and science were Rebecca’s favorite subjects in school. However, the only career path she was aware of in these fields was teaching high school math or science. As a result, she started in college with the plan to become a teacher. The professor who taught her freshman physics class was phenomenal, and he really encouraged people who liked physics to pursue it. Having great teachers and mentors helped show Rebecca what was possible. As a sophomore, she was invited to work in a lab, and she really enjoyed it. When deciding on her next career step, Rebecca was torn between graduate school and medical school, because she was passionate about both research and medicine. Fortunately, she discovered and was admitted to a medical physics program that allowed her to pursue both of her passions.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (16:29)
A pediatrician in Africa who treated children with HIV/AIDs proposed a problem to Rebecca’s group related to providing patients with the proper doses of medicine. Not all of the caregivers of these children had a good understanding of numbers, and this made it hard for them to give the correct amounts of liquid medicine with a standard syringe. This problem was assigned as a design challenge to a group of senior undergraduate students, and they developed a solution that worked but was too complicated to be practical for daily use. Getting negative feedback from the pediatricians on what didn’t work may not have been easy for the students, but it helped one of the subsequent teams design a simple and inexpensive solution that the pediatricians were really excited about and wanted to implement immediately.
A Shining Success! (19:48)
Rebecca and her students developed a bubble CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help improve newborn infant survival. This machine delivers a constant flow of air that helps pre-term babies breathe for the first few weeks until their lungs fully mature. CPAP machines typically used in the neonatal intensive care units (NICU) in the U.S. cost about $6,000. A group of Rebecca’s students came up with a $160 solution using aquarium pumps that provided the same air flow rate and pressure as the expensive hospital equipment. When they brought the prototype to Melawi for the clinicians to review and evaluate, their CPAP prototype improved pre-term baby survival rates from 24.5% to 64.6%. Rebecca’s group partnered with a company to commercialize this technology, and it is now being used in 23 countries to save newborn baby lives.
Book Recommendations (24:31)
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Most Treasured Travel (26:52)
The first time Rebecca went to Melawi was her most memorable travel experience. While she was familiar with many of the challenges in global health, seeing the challenges firsthand had a huge impact. Rebecca remembers going to a neonatal newborn unit where there were so many resources needed, and it was ironic that just down the hall there was a room full of broken, donated equipment which was exactly what they needed, but it wasn’t designed to work well in their environment. For example, common challenges are power outages, inconsistent access to clean water, and running out of basic medical supplies and medicines. This inspired Rebecca to change the direction of what she was working on to come up with solutions to these problems.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:45)
They submitted their CPAP project proposal to the U.S. Agency for International Development for their Saving Lives at Birth Program. Rebecca and her team were excited to be invited to participate in the final round of the funding competition. The event was run like a science fair for adults, where they had to stand next to their posters and answer questions about their projects. The judges came around to interview each competitor and timed their answers with stopwatches. At the end, there was a public ceremony to present the awards. With their initial seed funding award, Rebecca was able to hire 3 wonderful nurses in Melawi. When it came time to go through the nerve-wracking science fair process again for a second round of funding, the pressure was even higher because the jobs of these three women depended on getting funded again. Ultimately, they emerged victorious and were able to share the good news with their nurses in Melawi.
Advice For Us All (33:36)
Think about where your heart is in terms of what you want to do, and find a job that aligns with that. When there is a mismatch, it is difficult to be happy and to feel like you are doing the work that you are meant to do. Also, we often forget that as scientists, we have the power to transform the world. We need to take this seriously and be intentional about it.
Guided by the belief that all of the world’s people deserve access to health innovation, Rebecca’s research and teaching focus on developing low-cost, high-performance technology for low-resource settings. She is known for providing vulnerable populations in the developing world access to life-saving health technology, focusing on diseases and conditions that cause high morbidity and mortality, such as cervical and oral cancer, premature birth, and malaria. Rebecca’s research group is developing miniature imaging systems to enable better screening for oral, esophageal, and cervical cancer and their precursors at the point-of-care. Her group has also integrated advances in nanotechnology and microfabrication to develop novel, low-cost sensors to detect infectious diseases at the point-of-care, including HIV, cryptosporidium, malaria, and Tuberculosis. Her group developed a low-cost sensor to detect hemoglobin concentration; the device reduced per test cost by more than 100-fold (less than US$0.01 per test) compared to the standard of care. She led development of novel nucleic acid tests to enable diagnosis of HIV in infants in low-resource settings, introducing the first integrated paper and plastic device to enable isothermal amplification of HIV DNA. Rebecca has also led the development and dissemination of low-cost, robust technologies to improve neonatal survival in sub-Saharan Africa, including a bubble CPAP device to treat premature infants with respiratory distress syndrome. The device has been implemented at all government hospitals in Malawi, and introduced in Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa. At Rice University, Rebecca founded the Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program in which undergraduate students from multiple backgrounds learn to think beyond geographic and disciplinary boundaries to solve challenges in global health. This program has received numerous awards recognizing its success as an innovative form of delivering engineering education and real-world experience to students. Rebecca is married and has three sons, Alexander, Maxwell and Zachary and three daughters, Katie, Elizabeth, and Margaret.