ALTHOUGH COLLEAGUES at MIT describe Sangeeta Bhatia as a big thinker who leaps across traditional scientific boundaries in her quest to cure disease, her latest accolade comes from being a leader in thinking small. Bhatia, a physician who is also a biomedical engineer, recently won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors scientists who not only want to change the world, but who are dedicated to mentoring the next generation of researchers.
Bhatia is noted for using tiny technology to solve unimaginable challenges: creating liver cells in a dish in order to test drug toxicity, or using nanoparticles to devise a low-cost urine test for cancer. Working with nanoparticles, Bhatia is also designing tiny synthetic signposts, or biomarkers, that would someday lead to a paper-strip urine test for cancer or other diseases — a low-cost, low-hassle technology that doctors in developing countries could use. Beyond that, she is exploring the world of synthetic biology — specifically, whether benign bacteria can be re-engineered into disease-fighting warriors inside a patient’s body.
She hopes her work will give a boost to the next generation of women scientists and engineers, a cause she supports as founder of the Biomedical Engineering Society’s diversity committee and adviser to the MIT Society of Women Engineers. But a commitment to giving younger scientists a chance to flower is also evident in Bhatia’s lab. Taking a page from technology companies like Google, she tells her team of researchers, technicians, and students in her Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT to take 20 percent of their time to work on their own projects. “They call them ‘submarine projects’ in the lab, because they feel like they’re hiding them from me, but it’s completely sanctioned. Do whatever you want, and tell me about it when it’s exciting,” she told colleagues at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she is a senior associate member.
At a time when researchers are looking for new sources of support, awards like the Lemelson-MIT Prize provide rocket fuel for pioneering work. It’s heartening to know that, tucked away in labs all over our region, solution-driven scientists like Sangeeta Bhatia are tinkering and building — and encouraging others to do the same.