Babies were dying in the Malawi hospital and there was little Rebecca Richards-Kortum could do about it.
For Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor at Rice University, it was a heartbreaking realization, one that haunted her as she toured the modest health care facility more than a decade ago.
But her despair was quickly replaced by hope, when she noticed a room full of broken medical equipment – donated machines rendered useless by the African country’s unreliable power supply.
“I’m an engineer,” Richards-Kortum recalled saying to herself as she surveyed the equipment. “I can do something about this. I can fix this.”
Engineers are good at fixing problems, and Richards-Kortum is an exceptional engineer, so good the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named her a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. More commonly known as a genius grant, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship comes with $625,000 paid over five years.
The MacArthur Foundation considers the no-strings-attached grants as investments in the future of recipients, usually a hodgepodge from among the nation’s best artists, historians, scientists and activists.
For Richards-Kortum, it’s a nod to the global work she’s done to deliver low-cost medical technology to Third World countries. That includes a piece of machinery she helped develop that assists babies who struggle to breathe and has significantly decreased mortality rates in countries using it.
That piece of machinery was a CPAP machine, which I blogged about here and which contributed to a 46% reduction in the infant mortality rate in one neonatal unit. She and fellow Rice engineer Maria Oden have since developed other low-cost life-saving devices, which ultimately led to this award. Congratulations, Dr. Richards-Kortum, and may the inspiration continue to flow.