Drs. Rebecca Richards-Kortum & Maria Oden

Inventors bringing life-saving health solutions to the developed world

A two-week joint trip to Africa shadowing nurses and physicians in local hospitals opened the eyes of Rice University Professors of Bioengineering, Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden to the immense need for basic healthcare technologies in the developing world. The trip inspired them to couple their experience in engineering and teaching to create solutions. Richards-Kortum and Oden developed Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) after returning to the U.S., an engineering design initiative at Rice where they collaborate with undergraduate students to invent and implement health innovations for those in resource-poor communities. The Lemelson-MIT Program today announced Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden as the recipients of the 2013 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation for their life saving inventions and dedication to mentorship.

As mothers with 10 children between them, many innovations that come out of BTB focus on youth – from a low-cost bubble continuous positive airway pressure (bCPAP) system designed to help premature infants with immature lungs breathe; to DoseRight clips, color-coded plastic devices that can be easily inserted into the barrel of a syringe to govern how much fluid is drawn. The clips were developed to solve the issue of misdosing medication in infants who must be administered AIDS-fighting drugs to prevent the transmission of HIV from infected mothers.

Outside of their shared experience as mothers, it is their vastly different upbringings and undergraduate experiences that make Richards-Kortum and Oden the successful team they are today.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Raised in rural Grand Island, Nebraska, Richards-Kortum, whose mother is a nurse, experienced firsthand what it means to be the last community to benefit from new healthcare advances. Her undergraduate physics teacher inspired her to get involved in research. Richards-Kortum knew she wanted to tackle projects that would directly benefit humanity, and found her life’s path when she began working in a biochemistry lab that applied both physics and engineering to improve health care.

She joined Rice in 2005 as the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and founded the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies, a joint effort with the Clinton Global Initiative which brings together an international group of faculty, students, clinicians, and private and public sector partners to design innovative health technologies. Rice 360° serves as the foundation of the BTB program. BTB is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Richards-Kortum has received more than 30 honors and awards for her work, including election to the US National Academy of Engineering in 2008, being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2002 and 2006 and a Presidential Young Investigator by the National Science Foundation in 1991. She earned a BS in physics and mathematics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an SM in physics and PhD in medical physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Maria Oden

Oden, who was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, often witnessed the extreme poverty that many of the beneficiaries of her inventions live in today. She remembers crafting quirky technologies throughout her childhood. A course in architecture during high school helped her to appreciate the sense of accomplishment that comes with showcasing an idea in a physical model.

Oden joined the Rice faculty in 2004 and is now a professor in the practice of engineering and director of the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. Her year-long bioengineering design course, focused on presenting students with opportunities to develop novel technologies, quickly became a requirement for BTB students after Richards-Kortum and she evolved the curriculum to include a focus on global health innovations. Oden’s students have been recognized with more than 28 state and national engineering design awards and have submitted six patent applications for their work over the past six years.

Oden served as assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston prior to Rice. She is the honored recipient of Rice University’s George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching and in 2012 was honored by the American Society for Engineering Education with the Fred Merryfield Design Award given to one engineering educator nationally for excellence in engineering design education. She earned her BS, MS and PhD degrees from Tulane University in biomedical engineering with a focus on biomechanics and computational analysis.