When the phone rang, Rebecca Richards-Kortum thought it was a telemarketer. Instead, it was the MacArthur Foundation calling her at home to tell her she'd just won a grant totaling $625,000. And she hadn't even been aware that she'd been nominated for the prestigious award.
The MacArthur Fellowships, as they're officially called, are often dubbed the "genius grants." They're given out each year to 20 to 30 people who — according to the Foundation's confidential selection committee — show "exceptional creativity."
Past winners have included painters, filmmakers, scientists, a violin-maker, human rights lawyers and others. This year, Richards-Kortum is joined by two sculptors, a synthetic chemist, a New Yorker writer, a linguist and a cartoonist, just to name a few.
Richards-Kortum teaches bioengineering at Rice University in Houston. It could be a boring gig — designing new catheters, teaching the history of the X-ray, re-engineering medical equipment.
But she approached the job as a chance to change the world.
In announcing Richards-Kortum as one of this year's 23 fellows, the MacArthur Foundation noted her commitment to "improving access to quality health care for all the world's people. Richards-Kortum is not only developing novel solutions but also training and inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists to address our shared global challenges."
The professor co-founded, with Maria Oden, a hands-on engineering training program at Rice University called Beyond Traditional Borders. It challenges undergraduates to solve medical problems in the developing world. She also runs the school's institute for global health technologies called Rice 360°. She has made a name for herself in the field not for her own inventions, but for the incredible creativity of her students.
Richards-Kortum says she challenges students to design new medical devices and technologies that can actually be put into practice in low-resource settings. A device developed by one of her students to help premature babies breathe, for example, is now used in 19 countries, she says. So far, the lab holds 29 patents for work they've developed.
"If it stays in the lab, it's not really innovation," she says. "What we've learned here [at Rice] is that if you can engage students in helping to design new technologies and put them into practical use, they get so excited and work so hard that they learn in a different way. And they go on to have careers where they take that dedication and turn it into action in their own lives."
"So student design projects can do more than improve health care; they can also change education in a really positive way," she adds.
Her students have come up with dozens of low-cost inventions that do everything from screen for cervical cancer to provide oxygen to premature babies. One group built a centrifuge in a salad spinner. They dubbed it "Sally."
The ultimate goal is to develop equipment that will work in poor countries.
"One of the things for me that's just so frustrating is that in every single hospital that I've been in the developing world, there's an equipment graveyard that is full of donated broken equipment that was designed to work in places that have air conditioning, constant power supplies and a ready source of spare parts. It gets there and it just doesn't work," she says. "In the hospital where we've done most of our work in Malawi, there [are] 83 broken oxygen concentrators. If any one of them was working, it could be saving lives."
That hospital is the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. Malawi currently is facing major power outages. So Richards-Kortum has asked her students to re-engineer common medical devices to run on very little or no electricity. And they've come up with a new syringe pump that they're distributing to several district hospitals in the country.
"This is a device designed to deliver intravenous fluid at a very precise rate," she says. "And what we've done in our device is we've mostly powered it using a spring. In fact it's the same kind of spring that most people have in their electric garage door opener."
The original syringe pump could operate for only an hour or two on battery backup. But this new spring-loaded one, she says, can run for 66 hours.
Mark Kline, the physician-in-chief at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, says he first met Richards-Kortum about a decade ago when he was treating orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. He was immediately struck by her commitment to improve health care for the poorest of the poor, he says.
He mentioned to her that a lot of the children he was treating were being cared for by a grandmother or other relatives. And it was often a struggle to make sure that these orphans, many of whom were HIV-positive, were getting the right dosages of their medications.
"She and her students actually designed a syringe that locks out the ability of the person who's giving the medication to give any more than the prescribed amount," Kline says.
The new syringe was brilliant in its simplicity, he says.
In addition to teaching and overseeing projects in remote parts of the developing world, Richards-Kortum is married with six children.
"I don't know where she finds the time and energy to do everything she does," Kline says. "Her personal life is as busy as her professional life."
She also runs marathons and is planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., next month.
Richards-Kortum says she thinks about marathon running in relation to her work teaching bioengineering. Those final steps in building a new medical device or deploying a new technology into the field can be the most difficult.
"We all have times when we need to hear that voice of encouragement," she says. "As an educator, my job is to be that voice."
The MacArthur Fellowship will provide her with $625,000 over the next five years to keep up that work — or frankly, do whatever she wants with it.
The grants to all the fellows come with no strings attached. Richards-Kortum says she views the money as a huge responsibility, and she plans to use it to find new ways to improve the health of children in Malawi.