Here's Why Sangeeta Bhatia Landed the Lemelson-MIT Prize

No stranger to top-tier awards as an HHMI Investigator and former Packard Fellow, MIT biomedical engineer Sangeeta Bhatia can add the Lemelson-MIT Prize to her staggering resume. Here’s why she dazzles the scientific community, and prizemakers.

Bhatia was just named the winner of the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize, a $500,000 award for mid-career scientists improving the world through invention and demonstrating a commitment to STEM mentorship. Even at a glance, Bhatia’s research accomplishments at MIT are more than enough to understand why she would be selected for the award, but her track record as a team leader makes her a true force in Cambridge.

Related: Profile of Last Year's Lemelson-MIT Prize Winner Mary Belcher

First, the way Bhatia crosses disciplines is particularly exciting. As an engineer, medical doctor, and scientist, she leads work in the field of nano- and microtechnology in medicine. Her team at the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies uses miniaturization techniques common in semiconductor manufacturing to develop novel medical treatments, with a focus on fighting cancer.  

Bhatia has developed new technologies to allow synthetic systems and live cells to interface, with potential applications in detection, tissue regeneration, and treatment delivery. For example:

  • Bhatia and her team are working on using injection of nanoparticles to create synthetic “biomarkers” that will show up in a urine test, flagging diseases like cancer, thrombosis and fibrosis.
  • Her lab has developed synthetic “microlivers” using tiny patterns to structure grown liver cells in such a way that they will thrive. Her goal is to generate a complete, implantable liver.
  • The team is also working with nanoparticles that can strategically invade tumors, and then be triggered to more precisely deliver treatment to cancerous cells.

And I won’t even try to list off all of her academic credentials and professorships here. But her leadership is probably just as much, if not more of a draw for a funder like Lemelson.

Bhatia has had more than 150 trainees that have contributed to more than 40 issued or pending patents and launched 10 biotechnology companies with more than 70 commercial products.

Related: Lemelson Foundation: Grants for Science Education

At her lab, she has carefully crafted an environment in which researchers studying a diverse array of subjects can interact and nurture each other, as described in a great HHMI profile. All of her team members weigh in on new potential recruits, and top candidates have been turned away because they wouldn’t fit in with the friendly, collaborative atmosphere. She’s known for creating an enjoyable atmosphere, and helping her trainees with career and personal decisions, as well as work-life balance, shunning the “myth of the scholar” pursuing science 24/7. 

Bhatia is also known for her extensive work in diversity, as advisor to the MIT Society of Women Engineers and its program Keys to Empowering Youth, which works with middle school girls. She’s donating a portion of her Lemelson prize money to the society. And she founded the Biomedical Engineering Society Diversity Committee. 

So while a synthetic human liver would be an incredible achievement, what really makes Sangeeta Bhatia worth a bundle of prizes is the cascading effect of protégés  she’s leaving in her path.

Learn more about the Lemelson-MIT Prize here. It’s also definitely worth noting that, while some academic prizes have fallen pathetically short when it comes to diversity among its awardees, Bhatia is the third woman to win the Lemelson-MIT Prize in the past five years.