Global-health pioneer is first Houston scientist to win coveted ‘genius grant’
Rice University bioengineer and global-health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum has received a coveted MacArthur Fellowship. Richards-Kortum, the founder and director of Rice’s award-winning Rice 360º Institute for Global Health, is the first Houston scientist, the first Houston woman and the first Rice faculty member to win the award.
Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering, was one of 23 2016 MacArthur Fellows named today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur Fellowships come with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 and are commonly referred to as “genius grants.”
Richards-Kortum is only the third Houstonian and 13th Texan to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. The last Houstonian recognized was artist Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, in 2014.
MacArthur Fellows represent all disciplines and are chosen for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances,” according to the foundation. Recipients are chosen from about 2,000 confidential nominations each year, and fewer than 1,000 MacArthur Fellowships have been awarded since the program began in 1981.
“What characterizes Rebecca’s work is imagination, research and execution in the service of saving lives, notably the lives of poor infants and mothers,” Rice President David Leebron said. “She accomplishes her work through an extraordinary range of collaboration that empowers people around her, both professionals and students. She combines the teaching, research and service missions of a university to accomplish dramatic improvement in the lives of the poorest people and truly inspires her students to make a difference in the world. She is simply one of the most inspiring people I know, and this extraordinary recognition is well-deserved.”
Richards-Kortum joined Rice in 2005 and directs the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, which offers innovative undergraduate programs that engage students to design and implement new technologies to solve actual global-health challenges. Since 2006, Rice 360º has partnered with Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, to evaluate dozens of affordable health care technologies developed by Rice students, including several that are commercially available worldwide and more that are widely used throughout Malawi.
When Richards-Kortum and Rice 360º co-founder Maria Oden were recognized with the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, they used their $100,000 prize as seed funding for a campaign to build a new neonatal ward at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, which was dedicated this past June.
In addition to providing patient care for thousands of newborns each year, the new Queen’s neonatal facility will serve as an innovation hub for NEST (Neonatal Essential Solutions and Technologies), a turnkey package of affordable neonatal technologies that could slash newborn deaths in low-resource hospitals by more than 80 percent. NEST was featured in UNICEF’s 2015 annual report under the name “Nursery of the Future.” More than half of the technologies needed for NEST are in development at Rice, and Rice 360º hopes to make the full suite available to low-resource district hospitals within a decade for a total cost of less than $5,000.
Provost Marie Lynn Miranda said, “Dr. Richards-Kortum represents the very best that universities offer to the world: a brilliant mind married to deep compassion and an unending work ethic. Her innovative work on affordable technologies for health care in low-resource settings is literally making the difference between life and death for children around the world. We are so very pleased to see this well-deserved recognition.”
Richards-Kortum’s laboratory in Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative specializes in translating research in nanotechnology, molecular imaging and microfabrication to develop optical systems that are inexpensive, portable and capable of providing point-of-care diagnoses for diseases ranging from cancer to malaria. Her research has led to the development of 40 patents, and she is the author of the textbook Biomedical Engineering for Global Health published by Cambridge University Press (2010) as well as more than 300 refereed research papers and 11 book chapters. She also is the youngest Rice faculty member elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Richards-Kortum is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a past member of the National Academies Committee on Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards and the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering for the National Institutes of Health. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering (AIMBE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the Optical Society of America (OSA) and the National Academy of Inventors. Her many honors include the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award, OSA’s Michael S. Feld Biophotonics Award, Rice University’s George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and AIMBE’s highest honor, the Pierre Galletti Award.
Richards-Kortum, a native of Nebraska, earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Nebraska, and both a master’s in physics and doctorate in medical physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A former chair of Rice’s Department of Bioengineering and former director of Rice’s Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering, Richards-Kortum also serves as adviser to the provost on health-related research and educational initiatives.