Biomedical Engineering at the Crossroads of Science
Rebecca Richards-Kortum specializes in the development and use of laser spectroscopy for diagnosing diseases in human tissue, specifically the early detection of cancer.
"We are looking at how well patients and providers accept this technology, and seeing what impact the devices actually have," she says of her research, which currently is focused on finding pre-invasive cervical cancer, and head and neck cancers.
A professor of biomedical engineering and associate chair for research, Richards-Kortum's work grew from a burgeoning interest in math, physics and biochemistry, and her own undergraduate introduction to lab research, first as a freshman and later as a junior at the University of Nebraska.
"I thought I was going to be a high school math teacher, but when I was a freshman, the chairman of the physics department went out of his way to make a spot for me in his lab," she recalls. "I got to do research for a year. It was basic semiconductor physics work. Even though I liked that research, I wanted to do something that would impact humanity in a much more direct way."
"Later, I got the opportunity to work in biochemistry. I wanted to do something that could blend the two, so when I heard about the field of biomedical engineering, I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do," she adds.
Richards-Kortum is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. She won the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award and in 2001 was elected to the university's Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
As an HHMI Professor, she hopes to give undergraduates the same early exposure to research that influenced her own career, opportunities she believes are rare today in undergraduate education. Moreover, understanding the field of medical technology development is important in order to make informed decisions about personal health care and to contribute to debates about public policy, she says.
She will offer a course for engineering majors that will directly involve them in human research using biomedical imaging technology.
Another course for nonengineering majors "can give them the tools they need to understand the process of medical technology development," Richards-Kortum says, and it will be more exciting than the existing alternatives that fulfill a basic science requirementastronomy and the typical "rocks for jocks" courses, she adds.
As part of the curriculum, "the students will actually design a clinical trial and write a grant proposal." In doing so, the HHMI Professor believes "they will gain a better understanding of what it takes to do human research."
"We did a pilot section last year, and it was the most fun I've ever had teaching," she says.