Fueling Innovation by Connecting Dots Between Health, Medicine and Technology

This paperweight sits on the desk of Sangeeta Bhatia. It is a source of motivation in her quest to inspire her multidisciplinary team to connect technology and medicine. Sangeeta will speak in our Techno-Utopia session.

Increasingly, innovation sparks from creative connections across disciplines. Drawing from deep expertise in several branches of science, some of our TEDMED speakers employ their own interdisciplinary knowledge to create breakthrough technology that is advancing healthcare and our understanding of human potential.

Theoretical neuroscientist-cum-technologist Vivienne Ming is a co-founder of Socos, where machine learning and cognitive neuroscience combine to maximize students’ life outcomes. The company recently introduced Muse, an app that helps parents and caregivers support the development of young children. Drawing from decades of educational research, Muse aims to “give parents a superpower” by pulling rich detail from each child’s life – whether from the playground, classroom, or at home – and analyzes that data to track their linguistic and metacognitive development. Based on its findings, Muse then sends parents and caregivers daily individualized recommended questions and activities that would most successfully foster their child’s development.

At TEDMED, Vivienne will speak in our Human Explorations session about how we can best harness and maximize human potential. Through her work, she is “breaking through educational inequality, mixing cognitive modeling and neuroscience with a simple text-a-day to maximize life outcomes,” she says, noting that the question that she strives to answer with her research is, “What is the economic cost of unrealized human potential and how do we drive that to zero?”

Russ Altman, professor of bioengineering, genetics, medicine and computer science at Stanford, uses machine learning as well. He and his team strive to understand drug actions at the molecular, cellular, organism and population levels, including how genetic variation impacts drug response. “There is a shortage of new drugs in the pipeline, despite our ability to make unprecedented measurements about molecules, cells, organs, individuals and populations,” Russ explains, adding that he wants to use these measurement data to change the way we discover and evaluate drugs.

Russ says that he feels “privileged to work at the intersection of biology and computer science.” He was pursuing a graduate degree in biophysics in 1984, when Apple introduced the first Mac. “I was so excited by this computer (which I couldn’t afford) that I changed my PhD program to Medical Information Sciences, and bought a used Apple III (that’s right – !!!), and never looked back,” he shared with us.

Also innovating at the nexus of technology and medicine is Sangeeta Bhatia, cancer researcher, MIT professor and biotech entrepreneur, who tells us, “I am #BreakingThrough academic silos to converge engineering and biology on medical innovations.”

Trained as both a physician and engineer, Sangeeta directs a laboratory that leverages “tiny technologies” of miniaturization to yield inventions with new applications in tissue regeneration, stem cell differentiation, medical diagnostics, predictive toxicology and drug delivery. She and her trainees have launched more than ten biotechnology companies to improve human health.

“As a young woman, the daughter of Indian immigrants, I didn’t have many role models for the path on which I found myself,” Sangeeta recalls. “Nonetheless, I had three mentors (all men) who saw more for me than I saw for myself in high school, college, and then graduate school. They believed in what I had to offer and invested time and energy in pushing me beyond my comfort zone. As a mentor now, I realize how important this is—to recognize talent, in all its forms, and to energetically support it.”

Sangeeta keeps on her desk a paperweight inscribed with her personal and professional motto: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” That said, there is one risk she hasn’t yet pushed herself past – sky-diving. She explains: “When I was a child, my mom said I had to wait until I was older. Then I became a mom, my kids wouldn’t allow it! If it were risk-free, I would do it in a heartbeat.” Her compromise? “In my science, I try and make my lab a safe environment to ‘take an intellectual leap.’ I believe that is where the breakthroughs happen.”