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Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Rebecca Richards-KortumMalcolm Gillis University Professor
Professor of Bioengineering
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Director, Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health
Founder, Beyond Traditional Borders

Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory

Ph.D., Medical Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1990)
M.S., Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1987)
B.S., Physics and Mathematics, University of Nebraska - Lincoln (1985)

Bio Sketch

Guided by the belief that all of the world’s people deserve access to health innovation, Rebecca Richards-Kortum’s research and teaching focus on developing low-cost, high-performance technology for low-resource settings. She is known for providing vulnerable populations in the developing world access to life-saving health technology, focusing on diseases and conditions that cause high morbidity and mortality, such as cervical and oral cancer, premature birth, and malaria.

Current technologies are being tested and applied through multidisciplinary collaborations with clinicians and researchers at Rice, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center-Houston, and the British Columbia Cancer Agency. Over the past few years, Richards-Kortum and collaborators have translated these technologies from North America to both low- and medium-resource developing countries in Malawi, China, Botswana, El Salvador, and Brazil.

For two decades, Rebecca Richards-Kortum laboratory has focused on translating research that integrates advances in nanotechnology and molecular imaging with microfabrication technologies to develop optical imaging systems that are inexpensive, portable, and provide point-of-care diagnosis. When used with contrast agents, these rugged and portable optical imaging systems detect molecular signatures of pre-cancer, assess tumor margins, and monitor a patient’s response to therapy. The research has led to the development of 40 patents. She is author of the textbook Biomedical Engineering for Global Health published by Cambridge University Press (2010), more than 312 refereed research papers and 13 book chapters. Her teaching programs, research and collaborations have been supported by generous grants from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lemelson Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Doris Duke Foundation, Komen Foundation, Whitaker Foundation, and the Virginia and L.E. Simmons Family Foundation.

In May 2017, Richards-Kortum was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. That same spring, Fortune magazine named her to its prestigious list of World's 50 Greatest Leaders. She is also the first Houston scientist, the first Houston woman and the first Rice faculty member to win a coveted "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. The foundation named her team a semifinalist for its 100&Change $100 million grant competition for its plan to end preventable newborn deaths in Africa within 10 years. As part of this plan, Richards-Kortum and her team are developing and implementing Newborn Essential Solutions and Technologies, or NEST, which is an integrated group of lifesaving neonatal technologies that could prevent 85 percent of the newborn deaths in Africa.

Richards-Kortum is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (2016), a member of the National Academy of Engineering (2008), and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2015). She also is a past member of the National Academies Committee on Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards (2010-2012), and an inaugural member of the National Advisory Council for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering for the National Institutes of Health (2002-2007). She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (2000), a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2008), a fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society (2008), a fellow of the Optical Society of America (2014), a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (2014), and a Senior Member of SPIE (2016), of OSA (2012) and of IEEE (2007). She was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor (2002) and received a Professor Renewal grant from HHMI (2006) to establish and expand the undergraduate education program Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB). In 2012, the BTB program was chosen as a model program by Science magazine and awarded the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction; and in 2013, the hands-on engineering education program was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation for bringing life-saving health solutions to the developing world.

Other awards Richards-Kortum has received for her efforts in research and education include:  the Y.C. Fung Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1999), the Presidential Young Investigator (1991) and Presidential Faculty Fellow (1992) awards from the National Science Foundation, the Becton Dickinson Career Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (1992), the Sharon Keillor Award for Women in Engineering Education (2004) and the Chester F. Carlson Award (2007) from the American Society for Engineering Education, the Vice President Recognition Award by IEEE (2008), and she was named the Pritzker Distinguished Scientist and Lecturer of the Biomedical Engineering Society's 2010 Annual Meeting. Her recent contributions to advancing the applications of optics in disease diagnostics have been recognized by the Celebrating Women in Science Award (2011) from BioHouston, Inc., the Women Leaders in Medicine Award by the American Medical Student Association (2012), and the Michael S. Feld Biophotonics Award by the Optical Society of America (2014). The American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering selected Richards-Kortum for its Pierre Galletti Award (2016) for her leadership toward the creation of the global-health engineering discipline, as well as for her engineering solutions to save countless maternal, newborn and vulnerable lives in resource-limited settings. Richards-Kortum's excellence in teaching and educational program development and implementation at Rice have been recognized by the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching (2014, 2016) by the Association of Rice Alumni. 

Research Statement

The ability to noninvasively monitor cellular processes at the molecular level has the potential to lead to new ways of diagnosing and characterizing disease, developing effective therapeutics, and monitoring response to these treatments. Robust molecular imaging requires two components: a molecular-specific source of signal (typically provided through a contrast agent) and an imaging system to detect this signal. Ongoing projects in Richards-Kortum's Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory include:

  • Oral Cancer Screening: working in collaboration with Dr. Ann Gillenwater of M.D. Anderson’s Department of Head and Neck Surgery and the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mambai, India, Richards-Kortum’s group has launched an international effort to evaluate screening devices for oral cancer.
  • Molecular Imaging: through a team of multidisciplinary researchers, the Richards-Kortum group is developing molecular-specific, optically active contrast agents that can be applied topically to aid in the early detection of cancer. These contrast agents are based on the use of colloidal metal nanoparticles, and have been used in cell culture, tissue culture, animal models, and ex vivo human specimens. The research has demonstrated that the novel optical properties of these agents can enhance the image contrast between normal and precancerous tissue by more than tenfold compared to standard organic fluorescent dyes. Her team is testing the safety and efficacy of these contrast agents and imaging systems to support phase I and II clinical trials in humans.
  • High resolution imaging: Richards-Kortum’s group developed the first reflectance fiber optic microscopy system used to image epithelial tissue in vivo. Working with Professor Mike Descour at the University of Arizona and Professor Tomasz Tkaczyk at Rice University, she has developed and tested integrated microfabricated microscopes for in vivo reflectance and fluorescence imaging. These systems are in clinical trials and offer the first in vivo technique capable of imaging the three-dimensional profile of the targeted biomarkers as well as morphologic and architectural biomarkers such as nuclear to cytoplasmic ratio. The emphasis on microfabrication techniques offers an approach to high resolution imaging which is inexpensive, rugged and portable.