Ritu Raman was trained as a mechanical engineer. Now, as a postdoctoral fellow in Bob Langer’s MIT lab, she sees biological resources as just additional materials in an extended toolkit.
“I’m really interested in how biological materials are sensing our environment in real time,” she said. So she wondered: Could machines and devices do that in the same way? Muscles help us move and walk around, for example, so could a half-biological half-synthetic robot do that too — walk, get stronger, repair muscle damage?
Her aim, she said, is to develop biohybrid devices that can react to what’s happening in an individual patient at any given time. If you can integrate light- or heat-responsive materials into devices or implants, it might be possible to improve them.
In some weight-loss treatments, for example, balloons that are inserted in the gut have to be removed through another invasive procedure. Raman has worked on a polymer that’s designed to degrade after a patient swallows a special pill, meaning the balloon could be passed naturally. It’s an example to her of how engineering solutions can make an impact.
Raman, who grew up in India, Kenya, and all over the United States, comes from a family of engineers. But she’s not just interested in pursuing her own research. In graduate school, she designed bioengineering courses for undergraduates, and is planning on launching one at MIT.
“I’m really interested in how biological materials are sensing our environment in real time.”
She is also at work on a book about biofabrication for general audiences that will delve into such issues tissue engineering, the concept of 3D-printed meat, and the ethics of engineering with cells and proteins and not just wood or metal.
After all, if you build something with living materials, does that mean it’s living?
— Andrew Joseph