Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D.

AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2000
For innovative research in optical spectroscopy resulting in clinical tools which may dramatically improve detection for cervical and ovarian cancer.

DNA test could broaden access to cervical cancer screening

Via Rice University | June 21, 2023

Rice University bioengineers have demonstrated a low-cost, point-of-care DNA test for HPV infections that could make cervical cancer screening more accessible in low- and middle-income countries where the disease kills more than 300,000 women each year.

HPV, a family of viruses, infects nearly everyone at some point in their lives, often without symptoms. But more than a dozen types of HPV can cause persistent infections that result in cervical cancer, which is preventable and curable if it is detected early and managed effectively.

Nine engineers from the laboratory of Rice Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum spent more than two years developing a DNA testing platform that combines two technologies, isothermal DNA amplification and lateral flow detection, in a way that greatly simplifies the equipment needs and procedures for testing… Continue reading.

Accurate integrated imaging and projection system for oral cancer diagnosis

Via EurekAlert | January 19, 2023

Oral cancer is a globally prevalent disease with an astonishingly low five-year survival rate of less than 50%. A key factor for its poor prognosis is delayed diagnosis resulting in more late-stage oral cancers. At these later stages, treatment becomes less effective and harsher on the body. Hence, many scientists aim to develop and improve diagnostic techniques for the early detection of oral cancer. At present, the gold standard for the diagnosis of most oral cancers is biopsy of suspicious oral lesions and pathologic analysis of the extracted small amounts of tissue. However, it is extremely important that clinicians biopsy the areas within the abnormal lesion with the worst disease. Currently, the decision whether or not to perform a biopsy, and the optimal biopsy site, are based on clinical examination, which greatly depends upon the experience of the examining clinician. To help identify high-risk regions, clinicians can also use commercially available imaging techniques based on autofluorescence to detect abnormal tissue at the macroscopic level, although current autofluorescence technologies suffer from low specificity for neoplastic disease… Continue reading.

COVID test site differences, a fourth option in the works

Via Rice University | September 24, 2020

Rice’s Crisis Management Team plans to add a fourth and more rapid COVID-19 testing option on the Rice campus. Currently there are three sites that provide daily testing for asymptomatic students, staff and faculty who spend time on campus.

All three of these current sites (Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory, East Gym in the Tudor Fieldhouse and The Roost at Reckling Park) offer polymerase chain reaction testing. Bioengineering professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum said that her lab is working with the MD Anderson Cancer Center to develop a nucleic acid test for the fourth testing option… Continue reading.

Malawi study confirms lasting impact of life-saving technology

Via EurekAlert | September 20, 2019

Malawi’s national adoption of affordable, rugged, neonatal CPAP technology as a part of routine hospital care resulted in sustained improvements in the survival of babies with respiratory illness, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

Malawi, in southeast Africa, has the world’s highest preterm birth rate, with almost 1 in 5 babies born premature. A study conducted at 26 Malawi government hospitals found that the national adoption of rugged, low-cost, neonatal “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP) devices improved survival rates from 49% to 55% for newborns admitted with breathing problems. For newborns with severe breathing problems, survival improved from 40% to 48%… Continue reading.

The Engineer – Inventing a toolkit for newborns in need

Via Texas Medical Center | October 1, 2018

Two years ago on Halloween, Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering at Rice University, walked into her lab and stopped abruptly. Staring back at her was a crowd of familiar characters.

Her students, who wear costumes for the holiday every year, had conspired to go as different versions of their mentor. There was the mother-of-six Rebecca, the saving-dying-babies-in-Africa Rebecca, the marathon-runner Rebecca, even the Albert-Einstein Rebecca—a nod to the $625,000 fellowship Richards-Kortum received from the MacArthur Foundation. Commonly known as a “genius grant,” the stipend is paid out over five years to support visionaries in their creative pursuits for the benefit of humanity.

An honor of a lifetime, the MacArthur sits atop a long list of accolades Richards-Kortum has collected over more than three decades as a physicist, bioengineer and global health pioneer. She has developed 40 patents, authored numerous research papers and book chapters, and has been awarded grants from organizations that range from the National Institutes of Health to the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2017, she was included on Fortune magazine’s list of 50 World’s Greatest Leaders— alongside the likes of Pope Francis… Continue reading.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum named US science envoy

Via Rice University | June 8, 2018

The State Department has selected Rice University bioengineer and global health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum to serve as a U.S. science envoy. She is one of five science envoys announced today and one of only 23 scientists ever selected for this prestigious position.

Launched in 2009, the Science Envoy Program selects renowned and distinguished American scientists to promote the United States’ commitment to science, technology and innovation as tools of diplomacy and economic growth.

Richards-Kortum is Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and director of the Rice 360º Institute for Global Health. As a science envoy for health security, she will focus on expanding access to American engineering research and curriculum to build engineering capacity and opportunities for U.S. collaboration in Africa… Continue reading.

Fortune: Richards-Kortum among ‘World’s Greatest Leaders’

Via Rice U. | March 23, 2017

Fortune magazine named Rice University global health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum to its prestigious list of World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The annual list, which was announced March 23, is packed with world-famous people, including Pope Francis, Melinda Gates, Joe Biden and Elon Musk.

“I first saw the news on Twitter, and I thought, ‘Wait, what? That can’t be right,’” said Richards-Kortum, director of Rice 360° Institute for Global Health. “It is such an honor to be included in this group, and especially next to (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau! I am so grateful that it spotlights the efforts of our whole team working so hard to end preventable newborn deaths in Africa.”

In announcing its 2017 class of leaders, Fortune said, “The age of radical transparency draws attention away from today’s shining leaders, but they haven’t disappeared.”

“Some of those whom we salute in this fourth annual ranking of the World’s Greatest Leaders are famous — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Fed chair Janet Yellen, basketball great LeBron James. Many are not but should be, such as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, the ‘Iron Lady’ who has dared to call out Vladimir Putin for his misdeeds, and bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, whose Institute for Global Health is finding innovative ways to save babies,” wrote Fortune editor Geoff Colvin.

In September, Richards-Kortum became the first Houston scientist, the first Houston woman and the first Rice faculty member to win a coveted “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. In February, the foundation named her team a semifinalist for its 100&Change $100 million grant competition for Rice 360°’s plan to end preventable newborn deaths in Africa within 10 years.

Adapting High-Tech Medicine to Third World

Via JAMA Network | February 21, 2017

At a time when budgets for science and global health seem under threat, Rebecca Richards-Kortum, PhD, is doubling down on efforts to bring modern medicine to the developing world at a fraction of the cost. The Rice University bioengineer, winner of a 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, a $625 000 award often called a “genius grant,” specializes in helping countries with limited resources fight widespread afflictions like infant mortality, cancer, and malaria, using cheap, ingenious equivalents of advanced technologies.

Little in her background suggested that she would one day be a leader in addressing global health care inequities. As a University of Nebraska sophomore from a small, quasi-rural community, she was astonished when the chairman of the physics department invited her to join his research laboratory. “I didn’t know that research was even a thing,” she recalls. “I thought college professors just taught class.”

From those humble beginnings, by way of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has come an innovative overachiever. Richards-Kortum not only harnesses nanotechnology, molecular imaging, and optical contrast agents in collaborating closely on a stream of translational projects with MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Health Science Center, and others, but also in 2007 founded Rice’s 360-degree Institute for Global Health, an undergraduate program whose mission is “to prepare students to lead tomorrow’s global health workforce.” Key to the curriculum is Beyond Traditional Borders, a class she coteaches with longtime faculty colleague Maria Oden, PhD, in which students design and implement new technologies to solve actual global health challenges—often on-site in Africa.

Rice celebrates Richards-Kortum’s MacArthur Fellowship

Via Rice | December 12, 2016

Rice President David Leebron, Provost Marie Lynn Miranda and dozens of faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the university gathered Dec. 8 at Baker Hall to celebrate the 2016 MacArthur Fellowship of Rice global-health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum. Richards-Kortum, Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering, won the fellowship in September and became the first Houston scientist, the first Houston woman and the first Rice faculty member to win the coveted “genius grant.”

Rebecca Richards-Kortum Wins AIMBE Pierre Galletti Award

Via Photonics | May 6, 2016

Houston, May 6, 2016 — The American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering (AIMBE) presented its highest honor, the 2016 Pierre Galletti Award, to Rice University bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum has been awarded the 2016 Pierre Galletti Award for her contributions to global health care and bioengineering technology.

Richards-Kortum was acknowledged for her “global leadership and exceptional innovation in creating the discipline of global-health engineering and pioneering engineering solutions to save countless maternal, newborn and vulnerable lives in resource-limited settings.”

Scientist of Note

Via Rice | April 7, 2016

Rebecca Richards-Kortum has broken her share of glass ceilings and is showing others the way. An editorial praises Rebecca Richards-Kortum for her career accomplishments and for serving as a role model for young girls who might be interested in science. Richards-Kortum is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor, director of the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering and of Rice 360° Institute for Global Health. She recently received the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering’s highest honor, the 2016 Pierre Galletti Award.

Not Every Drop of a Person’s Blood Is the Same, a Study Says

Via New York Times | February 22, 2016

As diagnostic tests rely on ever-tinier amounts of blood, some scientists are striking a note of caution. As it turns out, not all drops of blood are identical.

Bioengineers at Rice University recently found that different drops from single fingerpricks on multiple subjects varied substantially on results for basic health measures like hemoglobin, white blood cell counts and platelet counts.

Their study was published in The American Journal of Clinical Pathology.

To get results as accurate as those achieved by the traditional method — inserting a needle into an arm vein — the investigators had to average the results of six to nine drops, said Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies, which did the research.

The investigators were careful not to squeeze or “milk” the subjects’ fingers, which has been known to invalidate results, said Meaghan Bond, the Rice bioengineering student who did the study with Dr. Richards-Kortum.

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Instead, the researchers used long lancets. But some subjects still had to be excluded because they stopped bleeding too quickly.

Hall Lecture: Global Health Care Inequities Need Engineering Ingenuity

Via Vanderbilt | January 13, 2016

New approaches to engineering design are needed to solve inequities in global health care, according to a widely-acclaimed bioengineer who tackles neonatal health and cancer mortality in low-resource settings in the United States and Africa.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum will deliver the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering’s John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture Monday, Jan. 25, at 4:10 p.m. in Jacobs Believed in Me Auditorium, Featheringill Hall. A reception will follow the lecture.

Richards-Kortum, Malcolm Gillis University Professor at Rice University, is the director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health and the Rice Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering. She is known for providing vulnerable populations 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.

Breath of Life

Via HHMI | October 15, 2015

Rebecca Richards-Kortum couldn’t get the four tiny newborns, crowded shoulder to shoulder in a single plastic crib, off her mind.

It was 2005, and Richards-Kortum, a bioengineer and HHMI professor at Rice University, was returning home from Malawi, a landlocked African nation and one of the world’s least-developed countries. While there, she’d visited the neonatal intensive care unit at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. It was an institution that lacked sufficient space, adequate resources, and equipment to perform even the most basic medical tests and treatments.

When she got back home to Houston, Richards-Kortum challenged her students to help babies like those four newborns. Jocelyn Brown, a senior bioengineering major, and four other undergraduates accepted the challenge and spent the next year researching and designing a device that the pediatricians at Queen Elizabeth had requested: a bubble Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (bCPAP) system, which blows a mix of air and oxygen into the lungs of premature babies to help prevent the respiratory problems that often afflict preemies.

Hospitals in the United States use a $6,000 bCPAP machine, but that price tag wasn’t feasible for a Malawian hospital. Brown and her teammates constructed a prototype for less than $200 that offered the same therapeutic flow and pressure as the systems used in Houston hospitals. “I knew students had the skills to design technologies that could truly improve health care,” says Richards-Kortum. “That was the start of it.”

Richards-Kortum Named University Professor

Via Rice U. | August 14, 2015

Rice University’s Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a pioneer in both bioengineering and global health, has become the first woman and the youngest Rice faculty member to earn the rank of University Professor — Rice’s highest academic title.

The promotion is the latest in a string of high-profile honors for Richards-Kortum this year. In April, she was elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Academy of Sciences — the latter earning her the rare distinction of dual memberships in the National Academy. (She was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2008). In June, she received a presidential appointment to the White House committee that evaluates nominees for the National Medal of Science.

Richards-Kortum’s appointment as the Malcolm Gillis University Professor and professor of bioengineering and of electrical and computer engineering became effective July 1. At age 50, she becomes only the seventh Rice faculty member to hold the rank of University Professor and the first to earn the title since mathematician Richard Tapia in 2005.

The title of “University Professor” is an appointment-at-large that enables the faculty member to teach in any academic department and share expertise broadly across disciplines to foster greater intellectual pursuits at Rice.

Richards-Kortum Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Via Rice | April 22, 2015

HOUSTON — (April 22, 2015) — Rice University bioengineer and global health leader Rebecca Richards-Kortum has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s foremost scholarly honors.

Founded in 1780, the academy is among the oldest and most prestigious honorary societies in the country. The society’s list of current and former members includes John Adams, John James Audubon and Albert Einstein. The 2015 class of 197 new members includes noted HIV researcher James Curran, actor Christopher Plummer, former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, as well as winners of the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and Grammy, Emmy, Oscar and Tony awards.

Richards-Kortum is Rice’s Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies.

“It is such an honor to be included as part of this accomplished group,” said Richards-Kortum, who joined Rice’s faculty in 2005. “I am extraordinarily grateful to everyone who has helped me over the years, including my students, colleagues and mentors. This recognition is as much theirs as mine.”

For two decades, Richards-Kortum has focused on translating research in nanotechnology, molecular imaging and microfabrication to develop optical imaging systems that are inexpensive, portable and provide point-of-care diagnoses for diseases ranging from cancer to malaria. Her research has produced 29 patents, more than 230 research papers, 11 book chapters and the textbook Biomedical Engineering for Global Health.

Richards-Kortum Named National Academy Of Inventors Fellows

Via Rice News | December 16, 2014

ichards-Kortum is the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Bioengineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. She is director of both Beyond Traditional Borders and Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies and oversees the Optical Spectroscopy and Imaging Laboratory.

She is also a co-founder of the Day One Project to build an innovation facility, the Nursery of the Future, at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, to test life-saving technologies under the supervision of pediatric specialists there. The project was recently featured in UNICEF’s annual report, “The State of the World’s Children 2015.”

Richards-Kortum integrates nanotechnology and molecular imaging with microfabrication for inexpensive, portable optical imaging systems that provide point-of-care diagnoses. This basic and translational research is highly collaborative and has led to new technologies to improve the early detection of cancers and other diseases, especially in impoverished countries.