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Sangeeta N. Bhatia: You Have To Be a Change Agent

“The way I see it, you have to grasp the opportunity and make the most of it. You have to be a change agent.”

In 1999, at the start of her academic career, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia faced a dilemma—she could take the safe path, or she could risk everything to pursue what ignited her curiosity. Drawing upon her deepest beliefs about science and engineering, Sangeeta chose to be bold.

“In a way, scientists are artists, tinkerers,” says Sangeeta. “Science and engineering are ultimately creative professions.”

Sangeeta chose to chase after the most fascinating questions, which has led her to tackle groundbreaking research that bridges the boundaries of medicine and nanotechnology, using the tiniest particles and sensors to monitor and diagnose the most delicate biological processes, and interacting with the most advanced gene therapies.

Sangeeta Bhatia. (Photo Credit Len Rubenstein)
“It looks like I planned it, but I didn’t at all,” says Sangeeta.

Her career has matured into one marked both by outstanding accomplishments and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom at every turn. Sangeeta is quick to credit her good fortune—her “privilege,” in her words—and the timely encouragement of others for the ability to pursue her passion. But Sangeeta has also seized every opportunity to mold her career in accordance with her interests, her values, and her creativity—from research, to family, to gender equity in her profession.

Inspired Early On

A daughter of Indian immigrants, Sangeeta was raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and says that she grew up with a healthy curiosity about the world around her.

But it was her father who was one of the first people to encourage her to consider the cutting-edge field of bioengineering. He inspired her interest when he took her at age 17 to visit a family friend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who was exploring ultrasound in cancer therapy, and who encouraged her to think about becoming an engineer—something Sangeeta had never seriously considered.

“We all joke in my family that being raised in a traditional Indian family, I had the option of becoming a doctor, an engineer, or an entrepreneur,” says Sangeeta. In fact, she has become all three.

Sangeeta studied engineering at Brown University, then went on to earn her medical degree at Harvard Medical School and her Master’s and PhD at MIT, where she began researching liver tissue and artificial organs. Here, too, she received a helpful push in an unexpected direction when her PhD advisor encouraged her to consider academia.

Pursuing her Passions

When she arrived at the University of California, San Diego to begin her first professorship in 1999, Sangeeta was at a career crossroad.

“The safe, strategic thing to do would have been to take what I had done as a graduate student—which was to micro-pattern surfaces with liver cells, study their architecture—to take that and map it onto other tissue types of the body,” Sangeeta explains. “It would have been very easy to just say, ‘OK, let me do heart, let me do cartilage, let me do the brain.’ I think I could have published a bunch of papers.”

But Sangeeta had also just been awarded a Packard Foundation Fellowship and its flexible terms gave her the opportunity to think more broadly about the path she wanted to take.

“The Packard Fellowship was my first major grant and it was such a boost in self-confidence. It allowed me to dream,” she says.

“I got to ask, ‘What am I really curious about?’ And it turned out that I was really in love with the liver, and I wasn’t done with it yet,” says Sangeeta. “I had so many ideas about two dimensions and three dimensions, the other cell types that were in there, what happened when it got scarred, when it got infected. And even though maybe it wasn’t the smartest, quickest path to publication, I really wanted to build a program around the liver.”

The program—aided by support from the National Institutes of Health—quickly proved fruitful, and by 2002, Sangeeta was granted tenure by the Bioengineering department. Soon after, she and her husband decided to start a family. But when Sangeeta inquired about the School of Engineering’s policy on maternity leave, she learned that she would be one of the first members of the school’s faculty to have a baby.

Once again, she blazed her own trail, and in the process, set a precedent for all the women who would come after her.

“I had to tell them, ‘This is how we’re going to do it,’” Sangeeta recalls. “And then they, to their credit, were like, ‘OK—that’s how we’re going to do it.’”

Here, too, the flexibility of her Packard Fellowship proved to be an enormous resource. She explains that it was her one source of funding that allowed her to use the funds for her childcare expenses, emphasizing how grateful she was to be able to ensure her kids were with caretakers she could both trust and afford.

“I can’t say enough how hard it is to have young kids as a junior faculty member,” says Sangeeta. “So that flexibility, which is not a traditional definition of flexibility, that’s really super important.”

Sangeeta has remained a devoted mother to her two young daughters, and she and her husband try to expose the girls to as many experiences and opportunities as possible. Sangeeta is proud that they are well-rounded kids who play sports and dance, but who have also visited her lab and have played with none other than Marie Curie dolls.

“I want to show them that it’s possible to achieve career success and live a full life as a mother, too,” she says.

The Path to Patients

At the same time, Sangeeta’s research—which has since taken her back to MIT as a tenured faculty member—led her to explore the application of nanotechnology to bioengineering. As both fields grew, she found that she loved working at the very cutting edge of each. Advances in semiconductor technology that made electronics smaller and more efficient also enhanced the precision of her work studying tissues.

Her current mission—and ultimate dream, as she explains in her TED talk—is to create a process that would make it possible to diagnose diseases ranging from malaria to cancer with nothing more than a simple injection, a urine sample, and a diagnosing physician who could be oceans away. This has led her to co-found a new startup – Glympse Bio – to bring this technology to market.

Sangeeta at her TED talk. (Photo credit Ryan Lash)

“If you want your research to directly impact human health, at some point you have to move beyond the lab and apply that research to people’s lives,” explains Sangeeta.

“Industry is the path to patients.”

While most professors take their time off during sabbatical to travel or research, Sangeeta, who describes herself as “scrappy,” is rounding up the funds for Glympse Bio—which she jokingly calls her “third child.” The startup is anticipated to launch clinical trials in 2019, when Sangeeta hopes that her dream of rapid and remote diagnosis will come one step closer to reality.

Her Place in History

When considering her career successes, Sangeeta is quick to acknowledge others, particularly other women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), who came before her and paved the way for her success. She points to the fact that in the 1990s, geneticist and MIT faculty member Nancy Hopkins launched the institution’s first examination of gender equity issues at MIT, which acknowledged not only that there were fewer women than men on the faculty, but also that the women received less lab space and pay than men. Sangeeta believes that that report had a ripple effect that persists today. In fact, she thinks that her very faculty position is likely thanks to the people who are careful to ensure her salary is on par with her peers every step of the way. Recognizing her place in the history of women in STEM, Sangeeta knows she has a responsibility to those women who will follow.
Sangeeta with a student in her lab. (Photo credit Len Rubenstein)
“When you get to a certain place in your career, you try to give back to the women in engineering,” she says. “I’m torn, because I don’t want the next generation of women to know what we’ve had to overcome, but I also don’t want them to take it for granted.” Over time, Sangeeta explains, things have gotten a bit better for women in academia since when she started, and there are many more women on faculty today. But Sangeeta remains vigilant in her pursuit of gender equity in STEM. Now finding herself in boardrooms as well as the lab, she realizes how far the private sector still has to go. “In the U.S., we may be past the point of overt discrimination in some of our institutions, and we are turning to unconscious bias,” she explains. When she finds herself as the only woman in a boardroom, she seizes the chance to be a voice for women.
“The way I see it, you have to grasp the opportunity and make the most of it. You have to be a change agent.”

Mentoring the Next Generation

Sangeeta with students in her lab. (Photo credit Justin Knight)

Sangeeta has received numerous accolades. She was awarded the title of investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Academy of Inventors; named to the MIT Technology Review’s top 100 innovators in the world under 35; and awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize and the Heinz Award, both for her scientific achievements and her dedication to the next generation of scientists. But when it comes to her proudest achievement in her professional career, Sangeeta doesn’t hesitate: “That’s easy,” she says. “My trainees.”

“I try very hard to grow independent scholars, and I’m proud that everyone in the lab goes off to contribute to this great ecosystem of science.”

“You bring in people of different disciplines who are willing to think outside of the box, who are willing to play nice with each other in spite of the fact that we’re at an elite university. And I think they all comment on the fact that it’s a joy to come to work every day and to learn from their colleagues.”

Knowing full well that future scientists and engineers will soon face many difficult decisions themselves, she advises them to steer their own course, as she did, and to pursue their own passions and dreams.

“Really study what you love and what you’re curious about, truly curious about,” she says. “And find the blue sky.”

Research Summary

Human tissues are composed of mixtures of cells that cooperate in a healthy microenvironment to perform the necessary functions of that organ. In contrast, altered microenvironments are a hallmark of disease. While cell-specific processes such as those controlled by a cell’s genes certainly influence the balance between health and disease, our focus is on interactions between cells and their microenvironment that occur on the length scales of receptor interactions (10 nm) to multicellular interactions (100 µm). We leverage engineering tools that have been created by the semiconductor community to speed rates of computation through miniaturized manufacturing capabilities. These micro-and nanotechnology tools, by virtue of their spatial resolution, enable the precise synthesis, interrogation, and perturbation of tissue microenvironments. Thus, we aim to dissect the role of the tissue microenvironment in both health and disease using engineering tools. Specifically, we focus on tissue microenvironments of clinical importance in liver biology and cancer, and we seek to translate our findings into new therapies for patients.