HOUSTON — Babies were dying in the Malawi hospital and there was little Rebecca Richards-Kortum could do about it.
The Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2coNMeF ) reports for Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor at Rice University, it was a heartbreaking realization, one that haunted her as she toured the modest health care facility more than a decade ago.
But her despair was quickly replaced by hope, when she noticed a room full of broken medical equipment — donated machines rendered useless by the African country’s unreliable power supply.
“I’m an engineer,” Richards-Kortum recalled saying to herself as she surveyed the equipment. “I can do something about this. I can fix this.”
Engineers are good at fixing problems, and Richards-Kortum is an exceptional engineer, so good the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named her a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. More commonly known as a genius grant, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship comes with $625,000 paid over five years.
The MacArthur Foundation considers the no-strings-attached grants as investments in the future of recipients, usually a hodgepodge from among the nation’s best artists, historians, scientists and activists.
For Richards-Kortum, it’s a nod to the global work she’s done to deliver low-cost medical technology to Third World countries. That includes a piece of machinery she helped develop that assists babies who struggle to breathe and has significantly decreased mortality rates in countries using it.
By becoming a MacArthur Fellow, Richards-Kortum, 52, joins the rarefied ranks of visionaries such as actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, children’s activist Marian Wright Edelman and film director Errol Morris.
That fact is not lost on Richards-Kortum.
“It’s very overwhelming,” she said. “It’s a huge opportunity. But it’s also a huge responsibility. It’s a big vote of confidence.”
With her petite stature and soft voice, it might be easy to overlook Richards-Kortum. Make no mistake, though. She is a scientific heavyweight, amassing a bevy of awards and accolades before the MacArthur grant.
In 2008, she became the first woman from Rice, and its youngest member, to gain admittance to the National Academy of Engineering. Earlier this year, she also was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a rare feat for engineers.
Last year, she became the first woman and the youngest Rice faculty member ever to earn the university’s highest academic rank, university professor. Today, she directs both the Rice Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering and the Rice 360 Institute of Global Health.
Her ascension in academia has been fueled by her biomedical research, which among other things, has focused on early detection of cancer.
She holds more than 30 patents, including one for a portable, pen-sized device that allows doctors to diagnose cervical cancer non-invasively in real time.
She arrived at Rice in 2005, giving up her post at the University of Texas for the chance to work more closely with Houston-based scientists in cancer research.
At the invitation of Texas Children’s Hospital’s Mark Kline, considered a world leader in treating pediatric AIDS patients, she visited one of his clinics in Malawi. At the time, it was a country where 1 in 5 babies was born prematurely.
That visit inspired her to create Beyond Traditional Borders, a Rice University-based program that challenges undergraduate students to create affordable technology for use primarily in Third World countries.
One of the first inventions to come out of the program was a low-cost continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) system that allows newborns with respiratory problems to breathe easier. From her travels in Africa, Richards-Kortum knew many hospitals there desperately needed such machines but could rarely afford them because they can cost up to $6,000.
Under her guidance, the students designed a CPAP machine costing about $400, thereby transforming health care in Third World nations. In one Malawi hospital neonatal ward, the mortality rate was reduced by 46 percent as a result of the breathing device.
“Through our CPAP project we’ve seen the impact a single technology can make but also the limitations when you only have one technology out of 20 or so that are needed,” Richards-Kortum said. “So my hope is that – and the goal of our team really – is to develop that whole set of technologies needed to end preventable newborn deaths.”
With that in mind, the students also have designed a LED phototherapy light for treating jaundice in babies. It can be made for less than $100. One of the lights can be found in a new neonatal ward in Malawi’s Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital that’s being funded in part through a donation that Richards-Kortum and another Rice engineer, Maria Oden, made after winning the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award in 2013.
Richards-Kortum said they hope that neonatal ward will become a “nursery of the future.” That would include using low-cost effective technology for adequate hydration and nutrition, keeping babies warm, and treating infections and jaundice.
About three weeks ago, Richards-Kortum was facing a looming proposal deadline, so she decided to work from home to get more done.
That’s when she got the call from the MacArthur Foundation.
“I have to say, it was a very unproductive day,” she joked.
Since then, she’s kept the secret under tight wraps, telling no one but her husband, Phil, who is an assistant psychology professor at Rice.
She’s not sure exactly how she will use the prize money but knows that it will somehow be used to further her work in Malawi to try to improve the health of women and children, and to promote engineering education.
“If you look at current rates of progress for newborn survival, it’s going to take 150 years for babies in Africa to have the same chance of survival as babies in North America,” she said. “I don’t want it be 150 years. I think we can make it happen in 10.”
For Richards-Kortum, her work in Africa is personal. She and her husband adopted two daughters from Ethiopia and today have a brood of six that ranges in age from 6 to 26. No doubt the demands of juggling the demands of family and work have helped her develop a strong work ethic.
In addition to her work in Africa and esophageal cancer research in China, she’s also deeply involved in a project aimed at reducing inequities in health care access for poor residents of the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.
Next month, she’ll begin a clinical study there in partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center to look at unusually high cervical cancer rates.
“I really want to focus on projects that have the potential to make the biggest inroads to reducing inequities in health care,” the new MacArthur fellow said. “Fortunately, I have a great team of people to work with here and internationally.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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