Engineer, physician, entrepreneur, cancer researcher, scholar, professor, wife, mother, yoga and book enthusiast, trailblazer in the STEM field. It’s not every day that we see these prestigious labels used to describe one woman. Sangeeta Bhatia has pioneered the world of biotechnology, setting an example of accomplishments, breakthroughs, and innovation that inspires women of all backgrounds to set foot in the diverse field of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering today.
Born to successful immigrant parents in Boston, Bhatia’s passion for science stemmed as a young girl when her father took her to a biomedical engineering lab at MIT where researchers were investigating a combination of tools to impact the human body. Bhatia was blown away to see the lab use ultrasound technology to destroy cancer tumors by heating them up. The visit to this MIT lab helped Sangeeta find her true academic passion and she pursued her interest in biomedical engineering throughout her high school career by getting involved in hands-on lab research during her summer breaks. She then attended Brown University, where she graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering and a minor in electrical engineering. While Bhatia was strong minded, passionate, and taught by her parents to pursue whatever she desired, she also became aware of the gender gap in the STEM fields very early on. She noticed that when she began her undergraduate career, the engineering class was 50% men and 50% women, but by the time she graduated, only 16% of her graduating class was female engineers.
After graduating from Brown University, Bhatia tried her hand in the pharmaceutical industry. Realizing that it wasn’t the field of science for her, she went on to graduate school where she was enrolled in a joint program to study mechanical engineering at MIT, take medical classes at Harvard Medical School, and conduct research at the Massachusetts General Hospital. She started her work on artificial livers at MIT and then took this research further. Her laboratory worked on a model that would later be used by pharmaceutical companies everywhere to test drug toxicity, the metabolism of drugs in the human body, and several liver diseases. Her goal was to make a machine for patients with failed livers that would have the ability to keep liver cells alive and functioning outside of the body for weeks on end. Her work involved the use of micro fabricated surfaces that allowed for the arrangement of cells into different patterns that caused them to act like mini livers metabolizing drugs and producing proteins. This breakthrough was key to providing an alternate external but natural liver function which will eventually be used in her liver chip device.
On the advice of her mentor, she tried her hand at teaching, and took up a job as an assistant professor at UC San Diego, where she finished the last year of her medical school education and eventually became appointed as an associate professor.
After her first daughter was born, she and her husband moved back to Boston, a city that had her heart and a place closer to her family, a very important part of her life. She described Boston as a sort of hub of intellectual activity that she inevitably belonged to. She said, “There’s something about the intellectual density here that’s really addictive. 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 mind blowing.” Back in Boston, she co-founded Hepregen, a company that worked to manufacture her liver chip device for pharmaceutical companies. In addition, her lab at MIT began working on the use of nanoparticles to diagnose and treat cancer and advanced research on malaria.
Today, Sangeeta Bhatia is the director for the Lab for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT, a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the Broad Institute, a biomedical engineer at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a TED MED speaker. She has received the Lemelson-MIT prize, the Packard Fellowship, and the Heinz award and these are just a few of her many accomplishments as a woman in the STEM field. “People still say it’s a matter of time, and it is getting better. But I’m pretty impatient about the slope of the line,” she says regarding the gender gap in STEM. While in graduate school she helped start the organization Keys to Empowering Youth, which worked to take middle school girls to MIT and give them the opportunity to participate in lab work. She worked to organize the science fair with her husband at her daughters’ school. In order to better serve as a role model, she makes it a point to be publicly open about herself and her work. “I try to be pretty open about having a life, having children, and a rewarding career, so hopefully women will want to choose this.” She is not only living proof of a woman who has gone above and beyond to work and succeed in this very challenging and dynamic field of study, but she works to serve as an advocate and role model for young women with an interest in science and engineering. She declares, “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.”
Nikita Raina is an undergraduate student at Tufts University, studying computer science and biotechnology. When she’s not at dance practice with her team, you will find her exploring hiking trails, frequenting coffee shops and concerts, and always up for an adventure.