Bioengineering Prof Wins 'Genius Grant' For Inspiring Students To Invent Ingenious Medical Devices : Goats and Soda Engineering professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum wins a MacArthur Fellowship for inspiring her students to invent medical devices for the developing world.

'Genius Grant' Winner Is A Genius At Inspiring Students

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The MacArthur Foundation unveiled its latest class of geniuses, so-called, for 2016. Each year, $625,000 grants go to 20 to 30 people who show exceptional creativity.

David, are you on this year's list?


(Laughter) No, maybe next year.

INSKEEP: What...

GREENE: Thank you, Steve. Thank you for asking.

INSKEEP: ...David Greene is not on the list?

GREENE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: The man is an author. He's a broadcaster. David Greene should be on the list.


INSKEEP: He's not on the list. But this year's fellows do include a playwright, several biologists, a human rights lawyer, sculptors and a cartoonist, among others. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on one of this year's winners.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Rebecca Richards-Kortum teaches bioengineering at Rice University in Houston. And she's made a name for herself in global health, not for her own inventions but instead for the incredible creativity of her students. In her lab and classes at Rice, Richards-Kortum asks undergraduates to come up with practical solutions to medical problems in the developing world.

REBECCA RICHARDS-KORTUM: If it stays in the lab, it's not really innovation.

BEAUBIEN: Her students have come up with dozens of low-cost inventions that do everything from screen for cervical cancer to provide oxygen to premature babies. One group built a centrifuge in a salad spinner. Earlier this month, Richards-Kortum was at a hospital in Malawi where some of her students are working. Malawi has been facing a huge problem with power outages, so she'd asked her students to re-engineer common medical devices to run on very little or no electricity, and they came up with a new IV fluid pump system that they're distributing now to several district hospitals in the country.

RICHARDS-KORTUM: It's designed to deliver intravenous fluid at a very precise rate. And what we've done in our devices is we mostly powered it using a spring. And, in fact, it's the same kind of spring that most people have in their electric garage door opener.

BEAUBIEN: And by winding up the spring, the device can operate for days, even if the power is out. In naming Richards-Kortum as one of this year's 23 fellows, the MacArthur Foundation noted her commitment to, quote, "improving access to quality health care for all the world's people."

Mark Kline, the physician-in-chief at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, says he first met Richards-Kortum when he was treating AIDS orphans in Africa.

MARK KLINE: I've known Rebecca for about a decade.

BEAUBIEN: He mentioned to her that a lot of these kids were being cared for by a grandmother or other relatives and it was often a struggle to make sure that these children, many of whom were HIV-positive, were getting the right dosages of their medications.

KLINE: She and her students actually designed a syringe that locks out the ability of the person who's delivering the medication to give any more than the prescribed amount.

BEAUBIEN: Kline says the new syringe was brilliant in its simplicity. In addition to teaching and overseeing projects in remote parts of the developing world, Richards-Kortum is also married and has six children.

KLINE: I don't know where she finds the time and the energy to do everything that she does. You know, her personal life is as busy as her professional life.

BEAUBIEN: She also runs marathons. She's planning to run the Marine Corps Marathon next month.

RICHARDS-KORTUM: I am. I'm training right now. I'm doing the Hanson Method. And man, it is killing me (laughter).

GREENE: Richards-Kortum says the toughest part of running a marathon is that final leg, from Mile 20 to 26. And she thinks about that in relation to her work teaching bioengineering, too. Those final steps in building a new medical device or deploying a new technology can be the most difficult.

RICHARDS-KORTUM: We all have times when we need to hear that voice of encouragement. And, you know, as an educator, my job is to be that voice.

BEAUBIEN: The MacArthur Fellowship grant will provide her with an additional $625,000 over the next five years to keep up that work, or, frankly, to do with it whatever she wants. Richards-Kortum says she plans to use it to support her work with children in Malawi.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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