Building bio-bots and beyond – Ritu Raman joins Real Scientists!

It’s pretty common to hear about someone building something by 3D-printing it on their own these days, but what about someone building their own 3D-printer? Well, our curator for this week did that in just the first year of her PhD.

Ritu Raman is an engineer, writer, and educator, with a PhD in bio-hybrid robotics and 3D bio-printing. She has just started a postdoctoral position at MIT working on translational medical projects. As usual, we asked Ritu some questions about her scientific life and beyond. Here’s what she told us:

Women in Mechanical Science and Engineering

My first memories are of growing up in Kenya, where my father, a mechanical engineer, built communication towers in rural villages. We would travel to these villages every weekend and I would play with the local children and watch the engineers build towers that would connect the village to the rest of the world. When we moved back to India, my mother, a chemical engineer, launched a start-up designing efficient heat exchangers for factories in addition to working full-time at an engineering firm. I was fascinated by the work my parents were doing and asked my grandfather, a civil engineer, to teach me how to be an “inventor”. He began by teaching me technical drawing and giving me old watches to take apart and examine. He then took me around my hometown, and showed me that there were many unsolved problems in the world, and that inventors had a big role to play in solving them. With a loving and inspiring set of role models like these three – science was an easy and obvious decision!

I chose to become a mechanical engineer because I wanted to build things – preferably spaceships and robots. As I progressed further in my undergraduate/graduate studies, I learned that most engineers neglect to build with the materials that surround us – biological materials. We don’t know exactly how they work, we don’t how we can build with them, and we don’t know how they will interact with synthetic materials. And yet, they have the ability to dynamically sense and respond to changing surroundings in a way traditional synthetic materials cannot! This wasted potential irks me and inspires me – I want to learn how to build machines with biological materials, and teach others to do so as well, so we can add a whole new class of tools and materials to every “maker’s” toolbox.

During the first year of my PhD, I built a high-resolution 3D printer for building complex structures with living cells and biomaterials. I then spent the next three years of my PhD using this enabling technology for two purposes: 1) Reverse Engineering natural systems with biological materials, such as living tissues, for applications in regenerative medicine; 2) Forward engineering non-natural systems with biological materials, such as bio-hybrid muscle-powered robots (bio-bots). I just started a new position as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, where I’m working on a variety of implantable devices and drug delivery systems and studying the interface of smart synthetic and biological materials.

Every person in the world is a maker – we use the materials and tools we have to build solutions to the problems we face as a society. I strongly believe that every maker in the world should have access to the smartest most powerful materials we know of – biological materials. If we can build dynamically responsive machines and systems, we can tackle some of the biggest problems we face as a society – not only in health, but also in energy, the environment, and beyond! I hope the lay public learns to love and admire biological materials as I have, so we can work together to build bio-hybrid solutions to our global technical challenges.

Growing up in India, Kenya, and all over the US, I’ve lived in communities with people of nearly every ethnic and socioeconomic background and become intimately familiar with the problems we face as a global society. I have been very lucky to have a supportive family and ample opportunities to educate myself and use my education for good, but I know countless people who did not have the same opportunities. As a result, my primary extracurricular activities revolve around democratizing education for women, underrepresented minorities, and anyone whose disparate level of access to a good education renders them at a disadvantage for future career growth and success. Education can be a force for social change, and it should be a human right – attempting to empower others through education is my main external obligation.

I love running outside, not only because its a great form of exercise and meditation, but because I can stop whenever I want to take a picture of a perfect moment and share it with the world. Sharing the beautiful sights that surround me on Instagram is one of my most stress-relieving and inspiring hobbies. Also, I’ve always loved to write, and have luckily chosen a career track in science that involves a lot of writing – however, I’ve recently realized I need to make room in my life for more creative writing. Still working on integrating this regularly into my schedule, but this is a passion I cannot ignore.

I am very close to my family and my best friends, and my ideal day off would involve exploring the outdoors with them (hiking, boating, picnicking), and eating lots of ice cream. At the end of the day, all of us would sit in different corners of the same room and read books while drinking tea.

Please welcome Ritu to Real Scientists!

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