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Today, Bhatia’s cancer team is taking cues from biology to design more efficient nanoparticle systems. They are designing two-particle systems in which one particle finds the tumor and then acts as an antenna to attract a second particle designed for diagnostic detection or therapy delivery—not unlike how different cell types work together to signal and treat a microbial infection, Bhatia says. They also would like to engineer a system in which simple components can achieve complex behaviors when they come together in large numbers and are working on mimicking the kind of swarming behavior seen when birds flock and ants forage for food.
The Myth of the Scholar
Despite her focus and drive, she is not interested in perpetuating “the myth of the scholar,” Bhatia says. “You don’t have to think about science 24/7. I love my science, but I don’t think about it 24/7!”
Her students aren’t entirely convinced. “She’s very devoted to her iPhone,” they say. “If you email her at 1 a.m., you might hear back right away.” But they know those emails come late because Bhatia stays off the computer in the evenings until after her daughters’ 9:00 bedtime.
“When they’re awake, it’s all about them,” she says. The girls’ soccer games and dance recitals (Bollywood is the current favorite) sometimes trump discussions of experimental design. And on Wednesdays, Bhatia works from home so she can be waiting at the school when the afternoon bell rings. “Earlier in my career, I used to tell people I was working ‘off-campus,’” she says. “Now everyone knows Wednesdays are Mommy Day.”
She and her husband Jagesh Shah, a systems biologist at Harvard Medical School, are instilling in their daughters the same curiosity about the world that shapes their lives. “They love science,” she says delightedly, perhaps in part due to the home experiments the four conduct together. The girls are also regular guests at the annual outreach event for middle school girls organized by MIT’s Society of Women Engineers. Bhatia and a handful of classmates launched the program, which they called Keys to Empowering Youth (KEYs), when she was a graduate student.
“This age group had been identified as the pinch-point in the pipeline, where girls begin to lose interest and drop out of math and science,” she says. “So we wanted to bring them in so they could experience the ‘gee-whiz’ aspects of a high-tech lab that they’d never be exposed to in the classroom.”
Now she is the KEYs faculty advisor and hosts an event in her lab each year. This year’s session had a glitzy Lady Gaga theme, and each girl went home with a sparkly hydrogel they’d made by entrapping glitter in a prepolymer solution. Bhatia’s hopeful that the exposure to female engineers will help keep the girls inspired and engaged as they advance in their education. “Plus,” she says, “I just love that my five-year-old knows the word ‘hydrogel.’”
She’s similarly pleased with her trainees, who say her mentorship offers rigorous and well-rounded preparation for their future endeavors. Gabe Kwong, a postdoctoral researcher who is developing a diagnostic urine test for tumor-derived proteins, points out that with no two people working on the same project, “you’re very quickly expected to become the leader in your own subfield.”
But apart from discussions of data and experiments, lab members find Bhatia always makes time for counseling about careers and personal decisions as well. “I keep expecting that level of involvement to diminish, but it never does,” says fifth-year graduate student Meghan Shan.
“I’m really proud of my students,” Bhatia says. “They’ve gone on to do really varied things.” Many are running their own academic labs, she says. Others are entrepreneurs, launching companies to develop stem cell therapies, nutrition technologies, or reproductive technologies. One student is working to help introduce a biotechnology sector in his native Portugal. Another has become one of the only women on the faculty of her department at the Indian Institutes of Technology.
Bhatia’s unfaltering support for women in engineering is motivated both by her own experience and by hard data. Early in her career, Bhatia says, she was hyperaware that she was usually the only woman in the groups of engineers she encountered. “In the beginning, I felt really fragmented,” she says. “I used to overthink everything.” As one of only two female students in her graduate program, she says, she used to puzzle over whether she should wear skirts to class, or if she’d be better off downplaying her femininity.
Confident and self-assured now, Bhatia laughs at the memory. But studies have shown that until women in academia make up about 30 percent of their field, they continue to face a “chilly climate,” she says. Female engineers have not yet reached that critical mass. “The key is to not get complacent,” Bhatia says. “The data show that unless you keep actively working on diversity, you can rapidly lose the gains made by the hard work of so many.”
Bhatia, who in 2006 founded the first diversity committee for the Society of Biomedical Engineers, still often finds herself the only woman in the room—or the only M.D., the only non-Caucasian, or the only mom. “But I don’t think about that anymore,” she says. “Once you have a set of accomplishments that you’re proud of, the rest of it kind of falls away. Now I have a very coherent sense of my identity. I have a vision that I’m excited about and an amazing team to drive it.”