Rice bioengineer elected to National Academy of Engineering

Rice bioengineer elected to National Academy of Engineering
Richards-Kortum honored for cancer research, educational leadership

Rice News Staff

Bioengineering’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum joined engineering’s elite ranks last week when she was named a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). She is both the first woman and, at age 43, the youngest member of Rice’s faculty ever elected to the academy, but she’s not exactly a conventional engineer.


Her technical prowess is formidable, but attend one of her talks and you’re as likely to come away thinking about social and political issues in the developing world as you are cancer and confocal microscopy. Even as a child, Richards-Kortum said she was anything but a tinkerer and had no more interest in what made machines tick than the average kid.

“When I was growing up I thought I would become a writer because I loved to read so much,” she said. “I always had my nose in a book.”

But in high school, she discovered a love for mathematics, and she decided to study physics at the University of Nebraska “because it was the toughest subject in my high school.” There was no way to know it at the time, but that decision would bring her in contact with three professors who changed the course of her life.

“I had a really inspirational teacher my freshman year – Professor Paul Burrow – and he made physics interesting and fun,” Richards-Kortum said. “I also worked in the labs of Professors David Sellmeyer and Sheldon Schuster, and they showed me how engaging scientific research was. That’s when I decided that I wanted to teach and do research for the rest of my life.”

Richards-Kortum went on to earn a doctorate in medical physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1990 and rose quickly through the academic ranks at the University of Texas at Austin before joining Rice’s faculty in 2005 as the Stanley C. Moore Professor and chair of the Department of Bioengineering.

In announcing her NAE election last week, the academy said she was chosen for “research on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in women, and for leadership in bioengineering education and global health initiatives.”

Rice has 14 NAE honoreesWith her election last week to the National Academy of Engineering
(NAE), Rebecca Richards-Kortum becomes Rice’s 15th NAE member.The NAE was established in 1964. Along with the National Academy of
Sciences, NAE shares responsibility for advising the federal government
on matters of scientific and technological importance. The NAE also
sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs,
encouraging education and research and recognizing the superior
achievements of engineers. NAE membership honors those who have made
important contributions to engineering theory and practice. The academy
has only 2,227 members in the United States and 194 foreign associates.

Richards-Kortum joins 14 other NAE members on Rice’s faculty: Robert
, the Noah Harding Professor Emeritus of Computational and Applied
Mathematics; Michael Carroll, the Burton J. and Ann M. McMurtry
Professor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering and Computational
and Applied Mathematics; William Gordon, distinguished professor
emeritus of space physics and astronomy and of electrical and computer
engineering; Anthony Gorry, the Friedkin Professor of Management and
professor of computer science; David Hellums, the A.J. Hartsook
Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and of
Bioengineering; George Hirasaki, the A.J. Hartsook Professor in
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Riki Kobayashi, the Louis Calder
Professor Emeritus in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Angelo
, the Foyt Family Professor Emeritus in Mechanical Engineering and
Materials Science and Computational and Applied Mathematics; Ronald
, the Herman and George R. Brown Professor Emeritus of Civil
and Environmental Engineering; Henry Rachford, professor emeritus of
mathematical sciences; Pol Spanos, the Lewis B. Ryon Professor of
Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering; Richard
, University Professor and the Maxfield-Oshman Professor in
Computational and Applied Mathematics; Moshe Vardi, the Karen Ostrum
George Professor in Computational Engineering and professor of computer
science; and Anestis Veletsos, the Brown & Root Professor in Civil
and Environmental Engineering.

Fellow NAE member David Hellums, who chaired the Bioengineering Department before Richards-Kortum, said, “She is remarkable in research, in leadership, and in teaching and mentoring. It would be hard to imagine a person more deserving of the recognition than Rebecca.”

Throughout her career, Richards-Kortum has displayed a talent for both high-caliber research and unconventional teaching. Her lab specializes in designing miniature microscopes and spectrometers for the early detection of cancer. For example, a cervical cancer probe she developed in collaboration with gynecologist Michele Follen at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has completed multicenter clinical trials involving more than 2,000 women. And one of Richards-Kortum’s newest devices, an oral cancer probe, is slated for trials in India in collaboration with M.D. Anderson head and neck surgeon Ann Gillenwater in the near future.

As for her teaching, Richards-Kortum’s classes and summer programs often meld clinical teaching and laboratory research. The latest of these, a “bench-to-bed” training program that began at Rice in 2005, allows bioengineering undergraduates to participate in clinical rotations at M.D. Anderson. But it was a much earlier class, one she developed while still at UT-Austin, that wound up altering not just her teaching but also her research.

“The provost asked me to develop a service course in biomedical engineering for non-engineering majors,” Richards-Kortum recalled. “I tried to find a way to make bioengineering sound interesting to nonscientists, and I thought global health might be a good way to go about it.”

Richards-Kortum created the course “Bioengineering and World Health” in 2001 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

“At the time, I was much more focused on solving health problems in the U.S., but the more I learned about the health challenges faced by people in developing countries, the more I wanted to become part of the solution through my own research,” she said.

In her lab, for instance, Richards-Kortum was already working with Follen to develop a laser probe sensitive enough to detect precancerous changes in cervical tissue. Since cervical cancer can be avoided with early detection, she was aiming for technology that would allow doctors to identify the disease much more effectively than they could with a Pap smear. What she learned through her class was that cervical cancer killed more than 250,000 women annually in the developing world — deaths that were largely preventable if the disease could be detected early. So she refocused her research, aiming for a device that could be used in villages without electricity and by health-care workers with minimal formal training.

Working on such a palpable and urgent problem made the work more fulfilling, and Richards-Kortum decided to try to replicate that experience for undergraduates. In 2006, HHMI awarded her $2.2 million to create “Beyond Traditional Borders” (BTB), a new program with middle school, high school and university components. Like her earlier course, BTB focuses on world health, but it also goes a step further, challenging students to come up with meaningful solutions that can benefit millions of people in the developing countries. The students take classes and work in teams, consulting with doctors and health professionals in the field. In collaboration with the Baylor Pediatric AIDS Initiative, BTB sent seven Rice undergraduates to Africa last summer to put their ideas to the test, and BTB plans to send even more this summer.

Richards-Kortum is now building on the success of BTB with “Rice 360°: Technology Solutions for World Health,” a major new Rice initiative she’s directing that aims to develop technologic and educational approaches to prevent disease in vulnerable populations. The initiative was announced Sept. 28 during the 2007 annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, and Richards-Kortum will step down as Bioengineering Department chair June 30 to focus more of her energies developing Rice 360°.

“Dr. Richards-Kortum has a unique vision for applying technology and education in ways that directly impact peoples’ lives,” said Sallie Keller-McNulty, dean of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering. “She’s one of the most gifted engineering researchers and educators in the country.”

For her part, Richards-Kortum said she will never forget the difference that great teachers like Burrow, Sellmeyer and Schuster have made in her life.

“I hope I can be the same kind of adviser, at least to a few students,” she said.

One of her former Ph.D. students, Rebekah Drezek, said, “Rebecca is one of those exceedingly rare individuals who touches your life in some unexpected way one day and fundamentally alters its direction.”

Drezek, associate professor of bioengineering, said Richards-Kortum made a lasting impression at their first meeting.

“I recall meeting person after person in attempting to determine whose lab to join and which school to attend for graduate work,” Drezek said. “Then I met Rebecca. I knew before I’d even walked out the door of that first meeting that I’d found where I wanted to be. What I did not know was how profound an impact meeting her would have on the rest of my life.”

Although teaching and research try to monopolize Richards-Kortum’s schedule, she makes time to be a dedicated mom to her four children — Alex, 16; Max, 14; Zach, 11; and Kate, 6.

“I try to leave work at 4 so I can be home while the kids are doing homework,” she said. “My least favorite job on the planet is supervising homework. But I find it amusing when my kids are surprised that I know how to do algebra.”

All four kids play the piano, and the boys play sax and clarinet. Richards-Kortum said she is amazed by this because “I have no musical ability at all.”

She needn’t worry; her professional achievements clearly show that she is changing lives as a teacher and scientist.

Among Richards-Kortum’s awards and honors are recognition as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, the Presidential Young Investigator and Presidential Faculty Fellow awards from the National Science Foundation and the Becton Dickinson Career Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation. She served on the inaugural National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering for the National Institutes of Health. And now she is among the select group of Rice faculty who have been elected to the NAE (see sidebar).


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.