With all the war and strife — inside and outside of the 2016 election — it may seem like the world is going to you-know-where in a handbasket. And tout de suite.
Then along comes news about Rebecca Richards-Kortum.
Last month, the Grand Island, Nebraska, native’s name appeared among nearly two dozen winners of the prestigious MacArthur “genius grant,” which is worth $625,000 over five years. The grant’s goal is to give people already doing good in the world a big boost to do even more good.
Richards-Kortum, 52, is a biomedical engineering professor who is teaching students how to solve medical technology problems in common-sense and cost-effective ways in order to save the lives of babies in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Richards-Kortum is achieving a couple of things: getting better results for the infants of Malawi, an African country with one of the world’s worst preterm birth rates, and creating better thinkers among her students at Rice University in Houston.
Under her watch, students aren’t just supposed to develop the next whiz-bang medical device. They are tasked with inventing work-arounds to technological challenges like spotty electricity in poor countries, including Malawi.
“If you’ve got a line voltage surge, then you’re done,” said Richards-Kortum, explaining how the surge fries digital electronics now common in electrical medical equipment. At Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Malawi, a floor below the nursery has become a de facto equipment graveyard of machinery with what she described as “mountains of broken stuff.” No air conditioning means filters clog up and machines break. And uneven electricity kills the digital devices.
So her students are figuring out solutions. One example is a special CPAP machine that they designed and patented in 2009. Generally, a CPAP machine pumps a mix of air and oxygen into a person’s nose to assist breathing. These devices are very important for babies born early — as almost a fifth of all Malawi babies are. Preterm infants often have underdeveloped lungs, and CPAP machines keep infants’ lungs from collapsing.
Richards-Kortum said that normally hospital CPAP machines run about $6,000 apiece and rely on regular oxygen piped out of hospital walls.
“That just doesn’t exist in Malawi,” she said.
So her students devised a CPAP machine using fish aquarium pumps that could withstand voltage surges. Later versions used similar kinds of pumps. The result was a much cheaper product ($800 apiece, including accessories). A clinical evaluation showed that the simpler, hardier, cheaper device could boost survival in preterm infants from 25 percent to 65 percent, she said. The device is commercially available and now used in 23 countries.
While this sounds great, Richards-Kortum downplayed the success. She said it’s just one device and more are needed. Her goal is to supply a hospital’s newborn unit with everything it needs and much more cheaply.
“Not only do (babies) need help breathing,” she said, “they need help staying warm, need help with the right amount of IV fluids, with photo-therapy for jaundice.”
Her students are working on 17 different technologies. If those come through, she said, the new machines could prevent 85 percent of neonatal deaths in Malawi.
Richards-Kortum said it’s easy for challenges like those in Malawi to be invisible. But she said problems here can be invisible, too.
“There is plenty of health inequity in Houston, in Omaha and all over,” she said. “Being open to seeing that, and then asking questions about what really can help solve this problem and understanding the problem from the perspective of the people who experience this, is the best way to figure out how you can be helpful.”
Richards-Kortum is a do-gooder with a daunting résumé. For starters, she was a paper girl in Grand Island — a role I’d like to think was instrumental in her formation.
“I got up early and rode my bike (wearing) a big yellow poncho,” she said, laughing.
After graduating from Grand Island High School in 1981, she earned a physics degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a master’s in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and doctorate in medical physics, also at MIT. She spent 15 years on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, helping form the biomedical engineering program there. A dozen years ago she moved to Rice University in Houston, where her husband Philip, a Gering, Nebraska, native, is also on the faculty, in the psychology department. (They met at UNL in Neihardt Hall.)
Richards-Kortum is more than a scholar. According to the MacArthur Foundation, she has also started an undergraduate curriculum called Beyond Traditional Borders, which teaches students how to take social, engineering and medical concepts and use them in practical ways to solve global health problems in developing countries. She helped found and direct the Rice 360° Institute of Global Health. Her research led to over 30 patents. She has authored 230 research papers and written a textbook. She has won more National Institutes of Health grants than any other Rice professor.
And if you’re feeling woefully inadequate right now, brace yourself: Richards-Kortum also is the mother of six children, including two adopted from Ethiopia.
Oh, and she’s a runner. We had to schedule our phone interview around her three-hour training run for the Marine Corps marathon in Washington, D.C.
Yet this superwoman is very grounded. Maybe it’s the Nebraskan in her. Maybe it’s her paper-girl training. Maybe it’s a combination of brains, heart and a will to make things happen. She’s not the type to get overwhelmed by big problems. Instead, she takes them one at a time and maps out small, achievable solutions starting with something we all can do: listen.
She didn’t go to Malawi and big-foot clinicians there. Instead, she found hospital staff to be optimistic, hopeful and warm, and she asked a simple question: How can I help?
Now the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” will enable her to do more.
The grant is named for the late businessman and philanthropist John D. MacArthur and his wife, Catherine. Begun in 1970, the foundation has assets of $6.3 billion and annually gives $220 million, according to its website.
Richards-Kortum is one of 23 “fellows,” or recipients, of this year’s awards. Other fellows include a human rights lawyer in Los Angeles, a theater artist and educator in Milwaukee and a composer in New York City.
Richards-Kortum had no idea she had been nominated, and so she nearly cut off the congratulatory phone call when it came in early September.
“I thought it was a telemarketer, actually,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful I wasn’t rude. It would have been so awful if I had said, ‘Take me off your call list.’ ”
Richards-Kortum has full discretion on how the grant is used. She said she will begin planning specifics but in general is “totally committed to using it for babies in Malawi.”
This is a contentious, uncertain time. There is war, strife and the nasty campaign slog.
But don’t give up on the world yet. This Nebraska native is working to fix one small corner in one very important way.