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.

Making a living with biology – Q&A with Nina Tandon

At TEDMED 2014, Nina Tandon invited us into a world of bio-curiosity, urging us to explore the range of possibilities that come alive when we use biology as a tool to innovate.  We got in touch with her to learn more about what inspires her work, and what she hopes to achieve.

"Isn’t it exciting to think that the third industrial revolution could be about life?" - Nina Tandon, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Jerod Harris]

“Isn’t it exciting to think that the third industrial revolution could be about life?” – Nina Tandon, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Jerod Harris]

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

I hope they learn that life itself is an entrepreneurial journey – it’s not a mystery! I remember, back in 2008, people kept on asking me if I was worried about finding a job.  I told them “I’m not worried about finding a job. I’m worried about the job I’m going to create!”  If you think like an entrepreneur, you are never going to be out of work, because you’re always going to be creating.  We live in an age when we should always be looking for opportunities, rather than simply waiting for them to be handed to us.  Science is evolving.  There isn’t a lack of opportunity – it’s just that they now take a different form.  They can be public/private partnerships, or academic/industrial partnerships.  If you think entrepreneurially, you’ll create your own opportunities.

Who or what has been your main source of inspiration that drives you to innovate?

The body is a miracle that many of us take for granted – I am continually inspired by its magic! I think the thing about the body that I am most fascinated by is that it’s so robust.  That robustness is what makes it difficult to study; we’re so busy trying to figure out how to generate data, and we’re looking for linearities within a nonlinear system. Our bodies don’t just have one solution to a problem – there can be tens of them.  That’s why, when biology fails, it fails spectacularly.

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn from your talk?

I hope that people realize that there is huge potential to meet sustainability challenges by viewing biology as a technology partner. We need to take biology off its miraculous pedestal, and ask how it might be possible to utilize it in our work.  That’s a powerful question that so many people are beginning to ask, from the most unexpected fields.  I want people to realize that biology is breathing into their lives.  People should walk around thinking “I might not be a biologist, but I should be because my field is about to be disrupted by it.”

What is the legacy you want your work and/or your talk to leave?

I hope that people will be inspired to care for their own “biological houses” as well as to take action to learn more about science. My hope is that increased appreciation for nature will inspire a new generation of activists and bio-innovators.  I don’t want to leave my stamp on anybody.  I want people to discover their own legacy, their own beauty and potential. I hope people forget all about me – it should be about them, not me.

Check out Nina’s TEDMED 2014 talk, “Borrowing from Nature’s Living Library”:

Reimagining an old technology: Q&A with Drew Lakatos

Engineer and entrepreneur Drew Lakatos, CEO of ActiveProtective, created a smart garment that uses airbag technology to protect the elderly from hip fractures when they fall. We caught up with Drew and learned more about his work and experience at TEDMED 2014.

Reimagining

Reimagining an old technology. Drew Lakatos, TEDMED 2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

We are introducing a new technology (that repurposes an old one) that most people will scratch their heads the first time they hear or see it.  Only after studying the problem, as well as its size and scope, does it become clear that there really is no other way to prevent hip fractures in the frail elderly.  By sharing it at TEDMED, we hope to raise awareness and begin familiarizing it as an intuitive treatment for those at highest risk.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

This talk matters now because of the seismic shift required to shift our “sick-care” system to a “healthcare” one by introducing, proving, and promoting preventive technologies that can completely avoid these tragic, expensive, death-sentence episodes of injury.

What were the top TEDMED2014 talks that left an impression with you?

I was shaken watching Marc Koska’s hidden video of a healthcare worker sharing needles of HIV+ patients. I was moved by Debra Jarvis’ warmth and honesty, and inspired by her heartfelt talk. I was touched, confused, and still processing Bob Carey’s Tutu Project. I don’t know where to store the images in my head, and loved his raw honesty.

Lab Testing Reinvented: Q&A with Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos

The United States spends more on healthcare than any other Western nation – more than two and a half times the amount spent by most developed countries. Even so, most Americans do not have access to quality, timely care. Patients seeking care face unpredictable costs for even the most routine diagnostic procedures, like blood testing.

These hurdles are so prohibitive that seeking out healthcare is often viewed as a last resort – an option to be considered only when symptoms appear. In some cases, this can be too late. Elizabeth Holmes reminds us that access to affordable, preventive care is a human right. It is this right – the right to be as healthy as possible – that is at the root of her mission to make actionable health information accessible to everyone at the time it matters.

At TEDMED 2014, Elizabeth talked about this right and the importance of enabling early detection and empowering individuals to make educated decisions about their healthcare.

Elizabeth Holmes, TEDMED2014. Photo, Jerod Harris, TEDMED.

Elizabeth Holmes, TEDMED2014. Photo, Jerod Harris, TEDMED.

We reached out to her with a couple of follow up questions about her work and her company, Theranos.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

We believe the right to protect the health and wellbeing of every person – of those we love – is a basic human right. Yet, in the United States today, healthcare is the leading cause of bankruptcy. Similarly, lack of healthcare is the leading cause of the suffering associated with finding out too late in the disease progression process that someone you love is really, really sick. We believe that every individual has a right to accurate, affordable, real-time health information before people become so sick that it is too late to change outcomes.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

Our mission at Theranos is to make actionable information accessible to everyone at the time it matters most. Theranos is a new paradigm of diagnosis, in which every person will be able to see the onset of disease in time for therapy to be effective. Through it, we see a world in which no one ever has to say “goodbye” too soon, and people are able to leverage engagement with their health to live their best lives.

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” –The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, Point 1.

It’s smart to design simple: Q&A with Josh Stein

On the TEDMED stage, serial entrepreneur and CEO & Co-founder of AdhereTech Josh Stein shared what he’s learned about designing ‘smart’ devices and the internet of things as they relate to positively influencing patient behavior. We caught up with Josh to learn more.

The Internet of Medical Things

Connected Medical Devices Will Revolutionize Healthcare… If Patients Actually Use Them. Josh Stein at TEDMED2014. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED)

Why does the talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

The Internet of Medical Things is going through a period of incredible growth, which is absolutely fantastic for patients! However, there’s an enormous design hurdle in regard to user adoption, and this hurdle is largely ignored. In short, there is too great a focus on what these devices can do, and not enough focus on how these devices will actually do it.

The Internet of Things, (IoT), or ‘smart’ devices, can be separated into two distinct categories: devices that users purchase and devices they don’t purchase.

Most IoT devices fall into the former category. Users will pay a lot of their own money for a gorgeous new smart phone, TV, or fitness tracker because these gadgets provide an immediate benefit to the user (they are awesome and fun to use). In these instances, consumers are willing to go through a reasonable set up and learning process for these devices.

In contrast, a large percentage of smart IoT medical devices actually fall into the latter category: users don’t buy these devices, and they are provided to users by a third party. This occurs because: 1) other parties subsidize these tools in order to improve patient outcomes and thereby decreasing overall costs or increasing revenue, 2) consumers typically don’t like to pay for medical devices, and 3) consumers typically don’t see a tangible immediate benefit from these devices.

The reason why this distinction is so important is that most smart medical devices are designed as if they fall into the former category, at least from a user-experience perspective, when they actually fall into the latter category. Thus, these smart med devices are designed as if patients will go through a long and complicated set up process to use said devices, when in reality the patient will not perform such tasks. Patients are simply expected to do way too much in order to use most smart med devices.

I shared this thought at TEDMED 2014 with the hope that this notion will resonate with other smart medical device creators. This could potentially lead to improved devices and better patient health.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I met Jim Madara, the CEO of AMA; he and his team spoke about the innovative ways in which they are revolutionizing how medicine is taught. I met Marc Koska; his syringe is one of the most ingenious medical devices that I have ever seen. It solves a huge problem through simplicity and understanding its user. I built a relationship with an individual who is innovating clinical trials at one of the most innovative companies in healthcare. I don’t want to mention this person’s name because, though this introduction, my company is now planning an engagement with his incredible organization. Stay tuned for updates on this collaboration – we’ll keep TEDMED in the loop!

I also met one of my favorite stand-up comedians, Tig Notaro. Her TEDMED talk was awe-inspiring, and it was amazing to see a whole other side to her. I can’t say enough great things about her and her work!

I had the pleasure of speaking with Jay Walker. His wisdom and advice has directly impacted product and vision of my company. I genuinely attribute a great deal of our success to the conversations I’ve had with him.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I want to be known as someone who has a net positive benefit on the world. Professionally, I believe I’m on the right track with the innovative work that my team and I are doing –  our product has been improving the adherence and outcomes of patients since 2013. We work long hours, but seeing improved patient health and traction continues to motivate us.