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Ritu Raman is an engineer, writer, and educator with a passion for introducing bio-hybrid materials into the toolbox of every inventor. Growing up in India, Kenya, and the United States, Ritu’s life experiences have shown her that technical innovation can drive positive social change, and this inspires her to help democratize and diversify STEM education around the world. Currently, Ritu is a postdoctoral fellow in the Langer Lab at MIT and a member of Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2018. Her work centers on developing novel materials and devices for applications in translational medicine.
Olivia D’Angelo: What’s your background, and how did you find your way to the Langer Lab at MIT?
Ritu Raman: I’m a mechanical engineer by training, but I got bored of the materials mechanical engineers traditionally build with — things like metals, plastics, ceramics, etc. I grew interested in exploring nature’s building blocks, biological materials, because of the way they can sense and adapt to their surroundings. This isn’t something you see in traditional synthetic materials and, in my opinion, makes them fascinating!
My PhD focused on building robots that were part biological and part synthetic. These biohybrid robots, or “bio-bots”, used skeletal muscle to move and walk around. Because they used a biological material as an actuator, they were able to do things traditional robots can’t do, such as get stronger when exercised or heal when damaged. In my future lab, I want to take this idea of biohybrid design into the world of implantable devices, and I knew the best place to learn the necessary skills was in the lab of Bob Langer, a world renowned pioneer in translational medicine. I have been very lucky to work with Bob and many others on projects that interest and excite me over the past couple years.
OD: Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of the Langer Lab?
RR: Bob is all about big ideas with transformative real-world impact. He has driven seminal advances in the fields of drug delivery and tissue engineering, and the mission of the Langer Lab (the largest biomedical engineering lab in the world) is to provide robust solutions to the grand human health challenges we face as a global community. I am surrounded by innovative and hardworking people and am very grateful to have experienced the dynamic energy of the Langer Lab and the Boston biotech scene.
OD: We would love to hear about what you’re working on right now — can you give us an overview of your research?
RR: My current work is focused on building responsive implantable devices for some of the most challenging environments in the body. In every project I work on, I use a material that senses and adapts to its surroundings to monitor and therapeutically modulate the body in real-time.
OD: What is your favorite project that you’ve worked on to date?
RR: My favorite project is always my next one! I hope to start my own lab in the near(ish) future, and am really looking forward to combining insights from my PhD and postdoc to design responsive biohybrid implants that advance human health and quality-of-life.
If I *had* to pick a past project that was my favorite, it would have to be my PhD work on bio-bots! It never ceases to fascinate me and helped me carve out a niche for myself as a scientist and innovator, and I feel truly lucky to have a passion project that shaped my early career.
OD: You founded the Women in STEM Database at MIT. What is that project all about?
RR: The Women in STEM Database at MIT (WiSDM), is my newest endeavor to help support and promote the careers of women in STEM. The goal of WiSDM is to provide a curated searchable online database of MIT STEM women, making it easier to find talented and diverse speakers for conference talks, panels, news stories, outreach events, etc. WiSDM includes MIT faculty, postdocs, research staff, and graduate students from all STEM fields. In addition to including each listed speaker’s areas of technical expertise, the database also includes information about non-technical expertise, such as science policy and entrepreneurship. The searchable database is intended to help people who want to make sure women’s voices are represented at STEM events. We were super excited to have our first series of talks powered by WiSDM at HubWeek’s Kendall Square Open Doors event!
OD: You were recently named one of MIT Tech Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 (congratulations!) — who are other Innovators who’ve influenced your path or inspired you?
RR: This was a recognition that meant a lot to me, especially because of the theme this year: “People willing to dedicate their lives to the idea that technology can build a safer, fairer world.” I grew up admiring the three innovators that shaped my early life: my mom, my dad, and my grandad — all engineers! Whether it was launching their own start-up in India, connecting rural Kenyan villages to the telecommunications grid, or just fixing a broken alarm clock around the house, they always used scientific innovation as a force for positive social change in their communities. They are my constant source of inspiration as I work towards biohybrid design to advance human health.
I am also incredibly grateful for all the teachers, advisors, mentors, and friends who never let me believe that being a woman precluded me from STEM education. Innovation is a team sport and I couldn’t have done it without an incredible support network.
OD: Do you think there’s anything particular about Boston’s research and science scene that influenced your work?
RR: Absolutely — Boston is the dynamic center of the world in translating healthcare innovation from the bench to the bedside! I am never more than a short walk away from researchers, clinicians, and patient advocates in any field I choose to explore, and that accelerates the progress and deepens the impact of every project I take on. We are all so lucky to live and work in Boston at such an exciting time in its scientific history!
This Change Maker interview was originally published July 2019 on the HubWeek blog.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.