Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum: Saving Babies, Running Marathons

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, BioScience Research Collaborative at Rice University, Houston, August 31, 2016.

I’m in the car, stuck in rush hour traffic, with the soothing voices of NPR’s Morning Edition calming my nerves. They’re talking about the new class of MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grants.

I turn up the dial. These grants are a big deal, recognizing exceptional creativity and facilitating future great work across all fields, including arts and sciences. The prize comes with a $625,000 stipend paid out over five years and there are no strings attached to the money. The Foundation wants the grantees to have cash-on-hand to do whatever they need to do to keep being awesome.

Right now Jason Beaubien is telling me about a bioengineer who is saving lives in Africa. Her name is Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum, and she’s sharing a story about how her students created a centrifuge using a salad spinner.

But then she says something that really blows my mind: “The Hanson’s Method is kicking my butt right now.” Of course! This amazing woman is also a runner, and one who is training for the Marine Corps Marathon this weekend. It’ll be her fourth full marathon, having just started running five years ago. Although I hated to put another thing on her calendar, I had to talk to this woman and share her story with you.

Her Work

Growing up in Nebraska, Rebecca always liked math and science, and she assumed she’d become a math or science teacher. Faculty inspired her to major in physics, and later encouraged her to stay in the major even when she considered engineering because of the career paths. For graduate school, Rebecca headed to MIT. She completed her master’s, and in her Ph.D. class of 80, there were three women until one dropped out.

As bioengineering developed as an independent field, Rebecca helped launch that department at the University of Texas before heading to Rice University, where she’s been for almost 12 years. There she is the director of the Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, and also teaches in the departments of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering. Rice 360° involves undergraduate students in “solving some of the biggest challenges in global health,” she said.

A decade ago, she and her colleagues asked themselves how they could get bioengineering students to do more design to solve real problems. Rebecca found an opportunity in Malawi. “I visited a neonatal unit there,” she said. “It was heartbreaking to see how hard they were working but how little technology they had even to keep kids breathing, to keep kids warm.”

Donated equipment had been ruined by electrical surges, so she challenged her students to design equipment that would work in that environment. For the past 10 years, Rebecca and her colleagues have mentored undergraduate student teams to develop solutions to problems identified by doctors and nurses through the Beyond Traditional Borders program, part of Rice 360°. “These kids work so hard when they know they can have an impact, especially women and underrepresented minorities,” she said.

“Sally the Salad Spinner” is one of her favorite projects, even though it wasn’t entirely successful. Doctors needed to test for severe anemia in their patients to determine if they needed blood transfusions. If you’ve had blood work, it probably took just a few minutes and seemed like no big thing. But it requires a centrifuge, which requires electricity to spin fast enough to separate the component parts of your blood. So Sally was a salad spinner that students turned into a centrifuge. It turns out you can, in fact, accurately measure hematocrit with a salad spinner, but it takes nine minutes of salad-spinner pumping. Not exactly efficient. “But it inspired another idea,” she said. “And showed how you have to fail along the way.”

Garmin spotting!
Garmin spotting!

Rebecca holds 30 patents, with students often listed as inventors. Students do share in the royalties, while most of the staff donated their royalties back to the program. “It’s really fun to see some of these inventions go along and move into clinical practice,” she said. When she visits hospitals in Africa, the staff usually don’t know who she is. But when she says she’s there about the CPAP machines, they light up.

In developing countries, respiratory failure is a leading cause of death of newborns. A bubble continuous positive airway pressure device — a CPAP — is a safe and effective intervention that’s widely used. A Beyond Traditional Borders team developed the Pumani bCPAP, low-cost, easy-to-use, easy-to-repair device to treat infants in respiratory distress, and it has been designed specifically to operate in low- resource settings.

Her MacArthur Genius Grant

Despite the program’s success, the phone call from the MacArthur Foundation was a “total surprise.” “They called me at home. I thought it was a telemarketer! I’m forever grateful that I was polite when I answered,” she said.

The fellowship comes with a $625,000 award distributed over five years. Not surprisingly, Richards-Kortum intends to use the money to further Beyond Traditional Borders. (When Rebecca and Rice 360º co-founder Maria Oden were recognized with the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation, they used their $100,000 prize as seed funding for a campaign to build a new neonatal ward at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Malawi, which was dedicated this past June.)

“I am so grateful to have the opportunity to have this money to improve the health for pregnant women and babies in Africa,” Rebecca said.

Her Family

Spending time in African orphanages inspired Rebecca and her husband, also on the Rice faculty, to adopt two daughters. The family of eight includes six kids: three children old enough that they’re largely out of the house, but three are still at home, including their youngest, two girls adopted from Ethiopia. They range in age from 24 to six. Rebecca describes things as “good-busy” at home. But running, she said, provides her some “white space” in her life between the demands of work and home.

Her Running

About five years ago, Rebecca, now age 52, started running a few miles in the mornings, which led to a neighborhood 5k. “I was hooked at the first water stop — those little paper cups!” She gradually worked herself up in distance and has run Marine Corps twice before and the Houston Marathon.

“I feel like in my job and at home, I have to give 100 percent all the time,” she said. But running is the one thing in her life that doesn’t carry that same pressure. “I want to be better than last season, but it’s okay if I’m not,” she said.

This season, she’s trying the Hanson’s Method. “It was the seduction of the shorter long run,” she said. “And I’m totally paying for it every single day!”

With a job that includes regular travel to Africa, Rebecca acknowledged fitting training in while oversees can be tricky. “There’s a lack of pedestrian safety in Africa. There’s no room for runners,” she said. But, she can use a nearby college track because “it’s safe and it works.” Otherwise, the treadmill is her only option. But, she said, there are a lot of runners and nobody gives her a second look. It’s a difficult balance, but she doesn’t see her life as particularly exceptional. “I’m like anybody else who does this. I just get up, get my shoes on, and get out the door.”

It takes time to train, of course, but she says without running, she doesn’t think she would be as productive. Running, for her, is a stress reliever and a “great way to work out solutions to problems, to get ideas.”

“I’ve found I’m so much more centered because of running. And I feel like if I wasn’t doing it, I would be impossible to live with!” Her husband “supports both running as well as being very much an equal partner at home,” she said. “And he’s gotten up very early to cheer at my races!”

Their adopted daughters, now ages 10 and 6, were with their father watching mom race the Houston Half-Marathon in 2013. “The toughest part of the race for me was between miles 11 and 12, but I knew my husband and our three daughters would be waiting for me near mile 12,” she recalled. “I got to mile 12 at about the same time the elite women marathoners were coming up on mile 25, and they’re all Ethiopian. It was an amazing moment for me and my daughters to see these amazing Ethiopian runners, and their mother, at the same time!”

Rebecca Richards-Kortum, runner and MacArthur Genius Grant winner with two of her daughters
Rebecca and her youngest daughters.

When she ran the Houston Marathon in January 2016, she again drew on her children for inspiration. “I had a goal for Houston, and I knew from mile 20 on would be the hardest, so I asked my daughter to make audio files that I could listen to during the race to motivate me,” she said.

“She’s 14. She asked, ‘Can I curse?’”

Rebecca didn’t listen to the files before the race. She loaded them into her playlist at strategic points, so she would have them to look forward to but the content would be a surprise. “She made me the most motivational 1-minute messages with epic background music,” she said. “It was so sweet and so helpful.”

What’s Rebecca’s goal for the Marine Corps? Her lips are sealed. But she promised to let Salty Running know if she achieves it!


Track Rebecca during the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 30, and you can follow her on Twitter @kortum.

You can also donate to the One Day Project at Rice 360º to help get these student-designed technologies to care givers in Malawi and other sub-Saharan countries.

Started running in my early 20s and ended up running my first marathon 15 months later. Managed to break 3 hours in my 12th marathon. Pilates instructor passionate about the importance of your powerhouse in running and the mind/body connection. One husband, zero kids, mama to one Australian Shepherd.

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  1. What a fantastic story! Good scoop 🙂 I think many of us can relate – between the demands of work, family, and life in general, running is one area where we can carve out a little room for ourselves. And what a sweet family she has!

  2. Great interview! I love her attitude, summed up by her quote: “I feel like in my job and at home, I have to give 100 percent all the time,” she said. But running is the one thing in her life that doesn’t carry that same pressure. “I want to be better than last season, but it’s okay if I’m not,” she said.