Pioneering Global Health
Rebecca Richards-Kortum doesn’t ask for permission to solve the world’s problems, she just goes to work. Guided by the belief that everyone deserves the benefits of health innovation, her research and teaching focus on developing and disseminating low-cost, high-performance global health technologies. Working alongside student and clinical collaborators, she provides vulnerable populations in the developing world access to lifesaving health technology. Transforming ideas into sustainable solutions, Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor of Bioengineering and director of Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technology, has spent her career developing point of care medical technologies to address global health disparities in low-resource settings as well as training and inspiring students to address global challenges.
Richards-Kortum discovered her passion for solving persistent and widespread problems as an undergraduate in a semiconductor physics lab. “While I was grateful for that research opportunity, I learned that I’m a person that is more motivated by trying to solve problems that are more immediate,” she said. “I discovered that it’s important to me that my research have a more tangible impact to improve someone’s life in the shorter time frame – five to 15 years.” As a graduate student, Richards-Kortum sought out research opportunities with fast impact potential.
Her research has led to the development of 40 patents, targeting diseases and conditions that cause high morbidity and mortality, such as cervical and oral cancer, premature births and malaria. Through Rice 360°, Richards-Kortum and her students have created a low-cost phototherapy device to treat neonatal jaundice and a bubble continuous positive airway pressure machine (bCPAP) to support premature infants who are unable to breathe on their own. She’s leading a multi-institutional team aiming to halve newborn deaths in sub-Saharan Africa in 10 years by developing a package of 17 lifesaving neonatal technologies that are accessible, rugged and affordable.
In 2018, she served as a U.S. science envoy for health security, one of only 23 scientists selected for the prestigious position. Fortune magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2017, and she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2016, making her the first Houstonscientist, first Houston woman and first Rice faculty member to win the award.
The Power of Research
As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, Richards-Kortum wasn’t aware research opportunities existed for students until a meeting with the chairman of the physics department resulted in an invitation for her to work in his lab. “I am forever grateful to him for opening up an entire world to me that set me off on a path that I just love,” she said. “I loved working in a lab during my undergraduate career and I try to remember that when I’m working with students today — that moments like that really can change the whole trajectory of someone’s career.”
When she entered graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she discovered her desire for conducting translational research. “The medical projects in that lab were real collaborations between scientists and physicians,” she said. “We would start with the needs that were identified by physicians and clinical teams and then execute technology development to address the needs that they were facing in their clinical practice,” she said. “The opportunity to see that as a graduate student — to see how a good team functioned and how a good team was built was incredibly motivating.”
The Future of Global Health Technologies
“It’s really easy to fall in love with your own science or your own technology and lose site of the users’ needs,” Richards-Kortum said. The future of global health technologies demands collaboration with the clinical community and a holistic view of science — to step outside the lab and think about the physicians who will implement the technology and the patients who will benefit from it.
This holistic perspective is also critical to ensuring technology reaches its final goal of intended use. Often effective technologies that meet a clinical need don’t get translated into use because they weren’t effectively commercialized or the appropriate policies weren’t in place to support their use.
Advice for Students
Richards-Kortum advises students who are pursuing careers in medical or biological engineering to identify the field or area that they want to dedicate their career to. When deciding what kind of research and development to be involved in, she recommends sampling a few different labs and to look at both academia and industry. “It’s a really good way to try out a field or subfield and figure out if it’s right for you, because sometimes you’re surprised,” she said. “And once you find the space that you want to devote all your time, don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t belong.”
Finding the right lab environment is also crucial to both research success and happiness. “There are welcoming labs and, unfortunately, there’s still a few unwelcoming labs. If you find yourself in a situation like that, look for another opportunity,” she said. “If you persist, there are so many good things that you can do with a career in this field, and we really need to have your voice and your contribution.”
Richards-Kortum challenges students to both design technologies that can solve a specific health problem and contribute to shaping international health policy. Public advocacy is critical to advancing policy and Richards-Kortum is happy to see an increase in students engaging in conversations and reaching out to elected officials at the local, state and national levels.
“It’s not just senior scientists who can be a part of the conversation about public policy and advocacy,” she said. “If you’re sitting within an engineering school, but you’re at a university that has a medical school or school of public health, reach out to your fellow students and faculty. There are many opportunities to become part of those conversations, and I think it’s never been more important to have the voice of science and the voice of engineering represented in those conversations.”