Rebecca Richards-Kortum named US science envoy

Rice University global health pioneer will focus on opportunities in Africa

The State Department has selected Rice University bioengineer and global health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum to serve as a U.S. science envoy. She is one of five science envoys announced today and one of only 23 scientists ever selected for this prestigious position.

Launched in 2009, the Science Envoy Program selects renowned and distinguished American scientists to promote the United States’ commitment to science, technology and innovation as tools of diplomacy and economic growth.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Rebecca Richards-Kortum (Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Richards-Kortum is Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and director of the Rice 360º Institute for Global Health. As a science envoy for health security, she will focus on expanding access to American engineering research and curriculum to build engineering capacity and opportunities for U.S. collaboration in Africa.

The other 2018 science envoys are former NASA administrator and astronaut Charles Bolden, biomedical engineer Robert Langer, infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm and air quality expert James Schauer. Their terms of service begin this month.

“These distinguished scientists will engage internationally at the citizen and government levels to enhance relationships between other nations and the United States, develop partnerships and improve collaboration,” the State Department said in a prepared statement. “Science envoys travel as private citizens and help inform the Department of State, a variety of U.S. government agencies and the scientific community about opportunities for science and technology cooperation.”

Richards-Kortum’s laboratory 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. She also is leading an international team of physicians, engineers and business and entrepreneurial experts known as NEST (Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies) that is developing and implementing an integrated package of life-saving neonatal technologies aimed at preventing 75 percent of newborn deaths in Africa.

NEST’s relatively simple technologies designed specifically for African hospitals keep babies warm, help them breathe and help doctors diagnose and manage infections and other conditions. NEST won $15 million from the MacArthur Foundation in December.

Richards-Kortum is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the Optical Society of America and the National Academy of Inventors. In 2016, she became the first Houston scientist, the first Houston woman and the first Rice faculty member to win a coveted “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Richards-Kortum has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nebraska and a master’s and Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a fellow in disease and poverty at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, was named a U.S. science envoy in 2015.

About Jade Boyd

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