Star Profile

Star Profile – Sangeeta Bhatia

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A biotech engineer fights disease through innovation

There’s a lot that’s impressive about Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia. The 46-year-old biomedical and mechanical engineer, physician, professor, inventor and entrepreneur has been anointed one of the most innovative young scientists worldwide and one of the 100 most creative people in business, to name just two of her accolades. The co-founder of biotech startups Zymera and Hepregen, she won the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize of $500,000 for her groundbreaking inventions in miniaturized biomedical technologies and youth mentorship.

But the most impressive thing about Bhatia? She’s only getting started.

“I’ve always been a little bit of an impatient inventor in the sense that I know there are really big problems out there, and we’re only just scratching the surface. I always seek to move beyond what we’ve found to try to make the biggest impact with whatever we have on hand,” says Bhatia, a graduate of MIT and Harvard.

Two of her most lauded inventions thus far are synthetic biomarkers that detect cancer through a paper urine test and a human microliver built from scratch to fight infectious disease by predicting drug toxicity and interacting with human pathogens. The microlivers provide a basis for an engineered liver that may one day replace the need for transplants in patients with liver disease.

Bhatia attributes her success to mentors who “saw more for me than I saw for myself” and to diversity—of experience, of interests, of colleagues. Her portfolio of inventions reflects this: In addition to drug toxicity and cancer therapeutics, she has addressed problems in the areas of tissue regeneration, noninvasive diagnostics and infectious disease.

“Innovation happens at the interfaces of different disciplines. Because I was an engineer and trained in miniaturization, I realized there was a whole world of microfabrication, which was invented for making computer chips, and the whole word of nanotechnology, which was a material-science invention. These things have been developed over the course of 50 years by teams of amazing people, and they were really right to be borrowed for medical applications,” she says. “That idea that you can combine fields and really leapfrog in advances has been something we try to repeat over and over again by bringing in diverse teams with diverse perspectives and experiences.”

Though she has received much acclaim, Bhatia admits her journey hasn’t always been easy. “One thing I struggled with a lot when I was coming up through the pipeline was looking forward to seeing if there were women who had the life I thought I wanted. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of great examples of that,” she recalls.

So Bhatia is a strong advocate for promoting STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to women, getting more women into high-tech entrepreneurship and being a model for what young girls can achieve. “I try to be really transparent about the way I’m living my life,” she says. “I think that’s part of paying it forward and keeping the door open for women behind you.” —M.J.

 

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