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Global health pioneer earns university’s top academic title

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 joined Rice’s faculty in 2005, and just a year later she and Bioengineering’s Maria Oden co-founded one of the most popular and transformative educational programs in Rice’s history, the award-winning, hands-on engineering education program Beyond Traditional Borders. In its first five years, the program attracted more than 10 percent of Rice’s undergraduate students, including many non-engineering students. The program led Rice to establish a minor in global health, and it helped drive activity at Rice’s award-winning Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, where students have produced more than 60 low-cost health technologies, including “bubble CPAP,” a low-cost version of the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, systems that are commonly used in developed countries.

Richards-Kortum serves as director of Rice 360°: Institute for Global Health Technologies and of the Rice Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering. Her laboratory focuses on developing point-of-care diagnostic technologies that are inexpensive and portable for diseases ranging from cancer to malaria. Her work has produced 29 patents, more than 230 research papers, 11 book chapters and the textbook Biomedical Engineering for Global Health.

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