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A Houston Scientist’s African Challenge

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Photo: Todd Spoth for The Wall Street Journal

Twelve years ago, Rebecca Richards-Kortum took a weeklong research trip to Malawi to see local hospitals and medical facilities. At one hospital, the bioengineer saw babies lying on cots next to medical equipment destroyed by dust and humidity. As a researcher and designer of medical devices in a lab, she found the trip shockingly eye-opening: “I went in the hospital one person, and I came out a completely different person,” she says. She saw things, she adds, from two perspectives: as an engineer and as a mother.

Now, as a professor in the bioengineering department at Rice University in Houston, Dr. Richards-Kortum, 53, has made it her mission to develop inexpensive, simple technology that makes medical care more accessible in developing countries. Last September, she won a $625,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work.

The more than 30 designs she has patented include a pen-size device to instantly diagnose cervical cancer—especially useful in isolated areas, so that women don’t have to return to a faraway doctor for test results. An inexpensive microendoscope can help identify potential oral cancer. Some of her devices are available commercially, while nonprofits and governments distribute others.

Her campus organization, the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, is now a semifinalist for a 100&Change grant worth $100 million from MacArthur. The grant funds a single proposal that would help “in solving a critical problem of our time,” as the MacArthur website puts it. Dr. Richards-Kortum would use the proceeds to address the newborn death rates in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounts for 38% of global neonatal deaths. In 2015, while the infant-mortality rate in the U.S. was 3.6 deaths per 1,000 births, the rate in sub-Saharan Africa was 28.6. Her ultimate goal: to halve the rate of infant mortality in that region within the next decade.

So she and her team at Rice have developed a number of low-cost ways to keep babies warm, help them breathe and diagnose and treat various conditions. A device that can identify jaundice with an inexpensive blood test is being tried out in Malawi, as is a syringe pump to deliver liquid medications to newborns and to women giving birth.

The Rice team has also developed a continuous positive airway pressure machine to improve airflow into children’s lungs. It is selling for $800 apiece; similar machines in developed countries cost $6,000, Dr. Richards-Kortum says. In one hospital in Tanzania, the use of the machine, combined with staff training, increased the survival rate of babies with respiratory distress to 71% compared with 44% for those treated with nasal oxygen. The machine is now being used in 26 countries.

Dr. Richards-Kortum grew up in the Corn Belt city of Grand Island, Neb. As a child, she loved reading science fiction and mystery books and wanted to be a fiction writer. Then, in high school, she discovered math and science. She went on to the University of Nebraska and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned graduate degrees in physics and medical physics.

Since 2005, Dr. Richards-Kortum has been at Rice. One of her jobs is to help students come up with new treatment ideas in developing countries. On the checklist: Does the problem affect a lot of people? Are there willing local-clinic collaborators? And does the idea fit within the 360° Institute’s area of technical expertise: namely, imaging and diagnostic tests that can be conducted in one visit?

Dr. Richards-Kortum lives in Houston with her husband, Philip Kortum, a Rice professor of psychology, and three children (three others have already left the nest). Her two youngest were adopted from Ethiopia. “Every time I would go [to Africa], I would end up visiting an orphanage and seeing an orphan in the hospital,” she says. When her youngest biological child reached 18, she recalls, “I said to my husband, ‘I think we have more room at the table.’ ” However, “it took a while to convince him,” she adds with a laugh.

The scientist says that she “stays sane” by running, whether in the U.S. or Africa, though she often gets lost without GPS in areas without cell service. Lost in an African neighborhood recently, she kept running until she found an area with reception. Then she called a co-worker, who drove around honking the horn so that Dr. Richards-Kortum could listen for the car and guide her colleague to her.

Last month, Dr. Richards-Kortum traveled to Nigeria and Tanzania to get feedback on her medical tools. Such trips make her realize how “truly blessed” Americans are to have access to modern medical technology. At a newborn intensive-care unit, a nurse was carrying a stack of death certificates. During her visit of just a few hours, two babies died. “Every time I go and visit a place like that,” she says, “I come back feeling just that much more committed trying to change that situation.”

Corrections & Amplifications Dr. Richards-Kortum is a professor in Rice University’s bioengineering department, and her husband is a professor of psychology there. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that she heads the bioengineering department and that her husband is a biomedical engineering professor. (June 24, 2017)

Write to Alexandra Wolfe at

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