MIT lab leader Sangeeta Bhatia talked to TechRepublic about her research in biomedical engineering and the rewards of being a professor in her field.
When she was young, Sangeeta Bhatia's father told her that she would make a good engineer. She wasn't really sure what that meant or what an engineer did, but she did know she enjoyed math and science classes.
It was the mid 1980s, and her father had just heard about a new field: biomedical engineering. He thought it would be an interesting way to combine what he saw were her strengths. So he took her to a lab at MIT and introduced her to a friend of his who was using ultrasounds to heat up tumors.
That captured her — the idea that you could build machines and instruments that would impact human health. It got her hooked.
Bhatia is now the director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT. She is also a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology, and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and a Biomedical Engineer at the Brigham and Women's Hospital — just to name a few of her accomplishments.
Born and raised in Boston, Bhatia is the daughter of Indian immigrants. She attended Brown University for undergrad, where she earned a degree in biomedical engineering and minored in electrical engineering. Through college, she wasn't sure what she wanted to pursue in the field, because bioengineering is so broad.
She worked during her summers in different labs, and in her junior year, landed in a lab working on nerve regeneration using plastics polymers that were piezoelectric — materials that when deformed, made electrical currents. More simply, if there was a damaged nerve, you could basically stick one in a type of tube that would then give off signals and help regeneration.
"I was like 'Wow, this is it; this is the combination of science and cell biology and medical applications that excites me,'" she said.
A mentor told her she should get a PhD, but she still wanted to go work in the industry at that point. She hadn't thought about being a professor.
"It didn't change my mind in the moment, but it really planted a seed that would grow later," she said.
After college, Bhatia took a gap year and worked in pharmaceuticals, which she realized was not the right intersection of medicine and technology for her. Everyone that had the job she wanted had a PhD, so if she wanted to be the boss, she needed to get more education.
For graduate school, Bhatia went back to MIT where she was admitted to the program they teach jointly with Harvard Medical school, where students could get a PHD in engineering and take a lot of medical school classes along the way. She fell in love with the human body — it was so fascinating to her.
Bhatia was an unusual student. She came in as a mechanical engineer, enrolled in this joint program, did some of her research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and because she fell in love with medicine, she finished her M.D. through Harvard. Her area of expertise was artificial livers.
She went back to the idea of materials interfacing with cells. She wanted to make an artificial liver machine for patients that had liver failure — kind of like a dialysis machine. The problem to that point had been that cells didn't function well next to plastic, so Bhatia's PhD research was understanding how to make them happy sitting on plastic, using manufacturing tools to organize them in colonies and stabilizing them.
All this time, she was still planning on going to industry. Her graduate mentor said she should consider being a professor.
"[That was] something that had never crossed my mind. It didn't seem to be interesting whatever he was doing in his office," she said. "Now looking back, I had no conception of what a creative field it is when you're running a lab, it's so innovative. When you're in the trenches it can feel really slow and full of failure."
She got a job at UC San Diego, so Bhatia and her husband picked up and moved to the beach in California. Within a year of being an assistant professor, she was amazed at how much she loved the field.
In 2005, after she had her first daughter, Bhatia moved back to Boston to be closer to family.
"There's something about the intellectually density here that's really addictive," she said. "It's so hard to grow up here as a scholar, to feel satisfied anywhere else because the pace of discovery and innovation is just mindblowing."
Her work at MIT is dedicated to using tools from manufacturing to impact human health. She has pioneered technologies for interfacing living cells with synthetic systems for tissue regeneration, medical diagnostics, and drug delivery.
The lab is divided into two groups: the liver team and the cancer team. The liver team has made huge progress in the field — they've developed human micro livers which model human drug metabolism and liver disease that have been successfully implanted in mice, and they're currently working on stimulating liver implants to grow, because the liver is one of the only organs that can regenerate large amounts of its mass. The lab is also working with the Gates Foundation on malaria research.
In 2008, Bhatia and a former student founded Hepregen, a company that manufactures microlivers to sell to pharmaceutical companies for drug development.
"There's a point in product lifetime where you invented something, published a paper and patented it, where if you really want it to have an impact, you have to manufacture it and sell it and make a business around it, otherwise it just sits in your lab," she said.
The cancer team works with nanomaterials that can be used to detect, monitor, and treat cancer. They invented nanoparticles for cancer detection and recently, some of the liver group realized those tools would be great for monitoring liver fibrosis — so there's cross-talk, and Bhatia is in the middle of it, which is very exciting for her.
She absolutely thrives in this world of teaching, both in the traditional classroom and outside of it.
"What I think is an interesting moment for education [is] we're all questioning what is the role of the scholar in the room, what is the way that people learn best, what is the role of online education, so it's a really interesting time to try and figure out how best to use that classroom time with students," she said.
And on the other hand, her lab work is with grad students and postdocs.
"You're trying to make them into colleagues, grow an independent scholar, trying to teach them not just how to think but how to write, orally communicate, themselves be mentors, how some of them go on to be entrepreneurs," she said. "That's also a really exciting educational process."
In her own words....
What are some of your hobbies?
"I have two little girls, so on Wednesdays I stay home for what we call Mommy Day, where I take them to school, walk them to class, pick them up afterwards, and then we go over to my parents' house where I get to see them and eat home cooked food, have some grandparent time for them. My husband and I have date nights every Friday...Happy hour, people have started realizing we have a date night every Friday so we'll get calls from friends like 'Hey, can we crash your happy hour?!' I do yoga, I'm in a book group with a bunch of amazing women, I like to travel. It's a pretty full life, but it's great."
Looking back, what is some advice you'd give yourself?
"One thing I felt a lot when I was coming up was what I since learned was called imposter syndrome, that feeling that you aren't good enough, that you didn't belong at the table, you're somehow an imposter and people were going to find you out, and I think that it would be great to know in hindsight that actually everybody feels that way. Everybody still feels that way, even your most respected colleagues will go home and say 'Oh, I shouldn't have said that [in] that way,' but that kind of vulnerability is not something that's part of our discourse.
"Being a woman in engineering, there [are] so few of us, I felt particularly conspicuous, and I just worried a lot about when to speak at a meeting, what to wear, how to be noticed but not too much...[it's about] finding your stride and finding out who you are and what's your style and how to take the parts of the culture that you respect and reject that parts that you don't. Now I think I feel much more confident, confident that we will figure it out, that we will innovate, that if I have something to say, it's probably worth saying, that I belong at the table, that I can wear a pair of high heels and still be taken seriously."