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Rice Professors Receive Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation

Summary

Two bioengineering professors at Rice University have been named recipients of the 2013 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation.Rebecca Richards-Kortum, an HHMI program director at Rice, and an HHMI Professor, and her colleague, Maria Oden, are being honored for mentoring a new generation of inventors in developing life-saving health technologies for the world¹s poorest communities.

Two bioengineering professors at Rice University have been named recipients of the 2013 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, an HHMI program director at Rice and an HHMI Professor, and her colleague, Maria Oden, are being honored for mentoring a new generation of inventors in developing life-saving health technologies for the world’s poorest communities.

In 2006, the two awardees developed the Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) engineering design initiative at Rice, with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). BTB has since guided more than 3,000 student inventors, resulting in 58 health innovations that help 45,000 people in 24 countries.

Richards-Kortum is the program director of the HHMI undergraduate science education grant at Rice, a role she’s held since 2006. She was also named an HHMI Professor at Rice in 2002. The HHMI Professors Program provides accomplished research scientists with the funds and support necessary to create new models for teaching science at research universities.

“By introducing their undergraduate students to the healthcare challenges that exist in low-resource areas, and training those students in the invention process both inside and outside of the classroom, Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden have created a group of young inventors who are developing solutions that save lives,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program.

Professors of bioengineering Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden of Rice University received the 2013 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation for developing health innovations for the world’s poorest communities in partnership with undergraduate students through their engineering design initiative at Rice, Beyond Traditional Borders. Video: MIT TechTV

Under the guidance of Richards-Kortum and Oden, BTB students work with clinical partners around the world to identify health challenges, and build and test prototypes for low-cost health solutions for use in the developing world.

One of the innovations developed by students at BTB is the rugged bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (bCPAP) system, designed for children with acute respiratory infection. BTB's model can be made for about $400, while commercial units can cost as much as $6,000. Studies show that nearly 178,000 babies could be saved each year if the bCPAP device is distributed throughout Africa. A clinical trial in Malawi found that BTB's design greatly improved survival rates for premature babies. BTB is now working with Malawi's Ministry of Health to implement Rice's system in all of the country's Hospitals.

Another BTB invention is the Global Focus Microscope. It uses battery-operated LED lighting to achieve fluorescent microscopy, and can quickly diagnose diseases like tuberculosis and malaria. A $240 manufacturing price makes it an affordable life-saving tool in developing countries, compared to fluorescent microscopes that are currently sold for more than $40,000.

“I learned about health issues faced by the poorest areas of the world and used my engineering skills to help solve some of those problems,” said Jocelyn Brown, a former BTB student. “I have been able to improve the standard of care for infants halfway around the globe. The experience has inspired me to continue inventing and innovating for the developing world.”

Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the most prolific inventors in U.S. history, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994. It is funded by the Lemelson Foundation and is administered by MIT’s School of Engineering. The program recognizes the outstanding inventors and innovators transforming our world, and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through innovation.

The $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation honors individuals whose technological innovations improve the lives of impoverished people in the developing world.

Richards-Kortum and Oden will accept the award in June at the Lemelson-MIT Program’s seventh annual EurekaFest on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They plan to donate all of the prize money from the award to the Day One Project, which will renovate the neonatal ward at their partner hospital in Malawi.

Richards-Kortum joined Rice in 2005 as the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering. She has received more than 30 honors and awards for her work, including election to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2008, being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2002 and a Presidential Young Investigator by the National Science Foundation in 1991.

Oden joined Rice in 2004, and is now a professor in the practice of engineering. She 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.

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