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