What’s Missing From Engineering and How to Solve It

Sangeeta Bhatia

Sangeeta Bhatia

In her TEDMED talk, Harvard-MIT physician, bioengineer and entrepreneur Sangeeta Bhatia showed how miniaturization, through the convergence of engineering and medicine, is transforming health– specifically, through the promise of nanotechnology for early detection of cancer. She’s also been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. We asked her to share more about her dedication to empowering girls to develop their skills in the STEM fields.

engineering

What we desperately need: the best minds, and their talent.

 

TEDMED:

In addition to your work in bioengineering, medical research and being a professor, you’ve been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in STEM-related fields. How are these two strands of your work related?

SANGEETA:

They are absolutely related! We need the best and brightest minds to realize these kinds of technological visions. The engineering pipeline is only 20-25% female; only 3% of tech startups are led by women. If I look around at the workforce in engineering at the moment in our country, it’s only 11 to 12 percent women. And the data shows that we lose women from this discipline all the way along what we call the ‘leaky pipeline’ that starts at age 11 and progresses all the way through to the workforce and to the board room– presently 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field at all.

Some years ago, some colleagues and I at MIT started this organization, Keys to Empowering Youth, to target girls between 11 and 13 years old, the critical earliest age range at which girls drop out of engineering. We bring them into labs at MIT and other universities where they have hands-on experiences with experiments. Over the course of the day, these girls see how fun, exciting and accessible it can be. They meet women who are college students in the Society of Women Engineers and are a little further up the pipeline than them as mentors. And the girls ask their mentors questions like, What is mechanical engineering? Electrical Engineering? Computer Engineering? What is the job that you hope to do? Is it fun? And we have seen that they can definitely be inspired.

Here are my two daughters, wdaughter 1ho turned 9 and 12 this year, having fun in my lab! We need girls to be inspired, we need them to have mentors, and we need them to have role models. I hope that my talk on the TEDMED stage can inspire more girls all over the world to choose to develop their skills in engineering and deploy them to revolutionize human health. We would all benefit.

TEDMED:

Your lab is known for choosing and training people to work in an interdisciplinary way. How do you go about accomplishing this?

SANGEETA:

We consider ourselves a bioengineering lab focused on impacting human health so we tend to attract people across a spectrum of science, technology and medical expertise. We select people that are ‘best athletes’ in the sense that they’ve excelled in whatever they were doing, they complement our mission, are invested in our approach and play well with others. Once they arrive we tell everyone that they can spend 20% of their time ‘tinkering.’ Over the years, the students have started calling these ‘submarine’ projects. They surface them to me if and when they turn into something exciting. And if they never do, that’s okay too. The point is that science can be full of failure and we need ways to play and stay creative, motivated and engaged. It just so happens that some of our most exciting advances have come out of such submarine projects.

TEDMED:

You’ve spoken about the power of mentors in your own training. Can you talk about a mentor who has had outsize influence on your work and life and how they became such an effective mentor for you?

SANGEETA:

I’ve been fortunate to have a series of very powerful mentors in my training, all of whom saw more for me, at critical moments, than I saw for myself. The most influential mentor is my father who first encouraged me to become an engineer by bringing me to a friend’s lab at MIT to learn about the intersection of engineering and medicine. Later, he would also encourage me to become an entrepreneur. Last year, he was my guest of honor when I was inducted to the National Academy of Engineering and we got to celebrate the journey together. I believe that family aspirations for their children, and especially for young girls, are critically important to keeping the technology pipeline at its fullest.

In graduate school, my academic father, Mehmet Toner, encouraged me to become a researcher and a professor when it wasn’t anywhere on my radar. It’s so important to have people to take the time to say to someone you believe in, “You would be good at that.” As a mentor now myself, I try and remember to do this and I encourage others to do the same. Ultimately, it may be the biggest impact we make.

Imagining a culture of healthier childhood

TEDMED speaker and pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan has been a co-investigator in a uniquely comprehensive longitudinal North American study following young girls through puberty. We asked her to design a fantasy health intervention with unlimited resources. Here’s her vision:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

We all know the expression, ”It takes a village to raise a child.” My fantasy intervention is based on that concept, however it expands on what the village is and what it provides. Today’s industrialized societies have fractured the extended family, resulting in most parents not having support from their own elders in raising their children. Many young parents don’t have the basic knowledge they need to support their growing families in healthy ways. While concepts about child rearing naturally change between generations, there is still a lot to be learned from those who have gone before us.

I’d love to support an intervention that provides education and assistance to families beginning from the moment they find out they are pregnant. The idea would be to start with pregnant mothers, by providing nutritional education and enhanced psychological and educational support, regardless of socioeconomic status. This education would take place in classes with members of the neighborhood who are also pregnant, thus building community.

After delivery, new parents would be encouraged to breastfeed and learn how to nurture their babies by visiting health workers who could come into the home. As the children grow, these home health workers would provide assistance and education to parents on how to feed their children, how to support their developing brains, and also how to discipline them. This way, parents could learn the facts they need to know, as well as start to develop a healthy authoritative approach to setting limits with their children. These trained workers would be available for parents to turn to for advice, to supplement the way some of us were once able to turn to our mothers and grandmothers for advice (but with the latest in knowledge and skills). The health workers would also set up support groups for families who live near each other or hold groups and classes as well.

At age 3, all children would be offered high quality preschool with a healthy lunch provided for all, and the parental support and education could continue, informed by these community schools. Parents would learn how to deal effectively with the challenges presented by their ‘threenagers’ and other toddler challenges. At entry to elementary school, the support and education would be augmented so that it would also be provided directly to the children themselves while also continuing with their families. All kids would have weekly lessons in cooking and healthy eating, and be active participants in growing and preparing healthy food at their school as part of the curriculum. Parents and guardians would participate in sessions about how to feed their children healthfully, assist their children educationally, as well as continue to be given tools about how to effectively parent their children.

Health Education would be taught to the children directly, starting in kindergarten with practical life skills, including cooking. In the early grades, the education might focus on the importance of eating a healthy balanced diet and on getting enough physical activity and sleep. As the children age, lessons would include classes on their body and health, with puberty education starting in third grade, separate from sex education, which could start in sixth grade. In third and fourth grade, children would learn about puberty and the body changes that will start and happen to everyone over the next few years. In middle school, kids would continue to discuss puberty, but would now have discussions about sex and sexuality. In high school, these topics would be discussed in more depth. The lessons learned about cooking, healthy eating, and exercise would continue throughout these years. There would also be age-appropriate mindfulness-based stress-reduction education through all of the grades, with an emphasis on this in high school. Parenting assistance and education throughout these years would reinforce these concepts and would perhaps also focus on how to enforce healthy sleep habits and limitations on screen time. The outcomes examined in this intervention would include rates of childhood obesity, early puberty, and psychological and educational diagnoses issues across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Could an intervention like this help reduce childhood health care disparities? Could it reduce parental stress and anxiety? Might it lead to more teens heading to college, thus reducing educational disparities? It is my dream to be able to study the effects of such a holistic, longitudinal, health education intervention. My hunch is that it could be game-changing.

Louise Greenspan is co-author of the The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls. Learn more by watching her TEDMED talk, “Weighing the causes of early puberty.”