The doctor behind a revolutionary cancer test says it all started with the support of her refugee parents
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As a child, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia's parents didn't ask her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Instead, her father would ask, "Are you going to be a doctor? Are you going to be an engineer? Or are you going to be an entrepreneur?"

Little did he know that she would successfully become all three: an award-winning biomedical and mechanical engineer who performs cutting-edge medical research and has started multiple companies.

Bhatia holds an M.D. from Harvard University, an M.S. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT. Bhatia, a Wilson professor of engineering at MIT, is currently serving as director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine, where she's working on nanotechnology targeting enzymes in cancer cells. This would allow cancer screenings to be done with a simple urine test.

Bhatia owes much of her impressive career to her family. Her parents were refugees who met in graduate school in India; in fact, she says her mom was the first woman to earn an MBA in the country. The couple immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, started a family, and worked hard to give their two daughters the best opportunities.

"They made enormous sacrifices to pick a town with great public schools and really push us to excel the whole way," Bhatia says. "They really believed in us, but they expected excellence. The story I like to tell about my dad is like, if you brought home a 96 on a math test, the response would be, 'What'd you get wrong?'"


Bhatia's father saw her potential in STEM and encouraged her from an early age. "I was good at math and science, and I was a tinkerer. I was always taking apart the family answering machine," she says. "He thought that I had the potential to be an engineer and he saw that I loved my high school biology class. So he brought me actually here, to MIT, where we met a family friend, and he was using focused ultrasound to treat cancer. And that really captured my imagination, the idea that you could build instruments for a medical intervention to impact human health. That really got me excited. And so I decided to study biomedical engineering."

At first, Bhatia didn't realize what an uphill climb science and engineering fields were for women, but it soon became clear.

"Freshman year we were 50/50 women and men," she says. "And by the time I graduated senior year, there were about seven women left in the class of a hundred. And I sort of realized what everyone was talking about with how women were underrepresented in engineering...what I'd experienced was the so-called 'leaky pipeline.'

"Then when I came to graduate school, when I joined mechanical engineering, I was one of very few women," she says. "And I would say that's persisted as I go on in my career. When I joined the faculty at UC San Diego, I was one of two women. And when I start companies, I'm often the only woman pitching a room of venture capitalists. I'm sometimes the only physician in a crowd of engineers, and sometimes the only engineer in a crowd of biologists or physicians."

One thing that helped Bhatia avoid falling through the cracks herself was winning a David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowship for Science and Engineering — a prestigious $875,000 prize given to a select group of the nation's most promising early-career scientists and engineers.

"When you're starting out as a young professor, you have all these bright ideas about things that you want to do," she says. "But the very first thing you have to do is you have to raise resources to do those experiments, to hire the students, to staff up the lab, to buy the reagents, to do the experiments."

Raising money isn't easy. Scientific research and innovation is a long game — more of a marathon than a sprint. It can take 10 to 20 years or more for an idea to go from seed to fruition, and multiple hurdles can arise through the process. As a result, funding is often limited or tightly controlled.

But the Packard Fellowship allowed Bhatia to freely explore various ideas and innovations that might not normally receive grant funding, such as creating a functioning 3D-printed liver.

"We were interested in that idea that we could print livers, three-dimensional livers, layer by layer, with light," she says. "And so I used the fellowship to explore that, to find materials that could cross-link when they were exposed to light and that would allow us to layer liver cells and build three-dimensional livers. And that actually has turned into a whole program in my lab where we've built little livers that we hope will replace transplantation. And so that was totally seeded. It was something that was an idea. I don't think I could have ever gotten grant funding for it because I had no what we call preliminary data — it was just a thought. And it's turned into a big, successful program."

One thing that's unique about the Packard Fellowship is that the funds are unrestricted, meaning a recipient can use the money any way they see fit. That feature not only provides freedom to explore ideas, but it can be especially helpful for women in STEM. For example, Bhatia had her first daughter in 2003 — four years into her fellowship — and being able to use the funds as needed during a critical time in her career and family life was huge.

"I think one of the things that you worry a lot about when you're a young mom scientist is that balance of making an impact in your profession, but also being the mom that you always wanted to be," she says. "And the Packard Foundation allowed me to use $10,000 a year of that fund to help support quality daycare for her, or night care. So if I was going to a conference and I needed help, or if I wanted to bring her along and got a second hotel room, there were no questions asked. It was just recognized that this was a stressor, and you could use this research funding to support that dimension of your life, which was really forward thinking and unusual."

Bhatia says the expectations in science and engineering have had to change as more women have entered the field, and she's personally had to navigate how to make it all work.

"The profession grew up around people where the vision was that you would work 24/7 to advance your idea," she says. "And often you had a whole family around you that was supporting you so that you could focus on that effort. And I think when women came into the field, we had to rethink that a little bit. So I traveled less, I wanted to stay home one day a week and be with my daughter, and I had to sort of recraft a vision for the profession that I thought I wanted it to be. And one of the biggest problems is how to pay for it all. How do you cook for the family? How do you clean your house? How do you get your baby out the door? Those are very real issues. And you know, you go up for tenure and you're establishing your scientific vision when you're in your thirties. It's an incredible crunch time, so it all sort of happens at once. And those financial offsets that you can give people in those formative years—that can make a difference between whether you stay in science and whether you don't."

Bhatia dedicates time and resources toward helping girls and young women find success in the field. Realizing that many girls lose interest in math and science in middle school, Bhatia and some female friends in graduate school founded a program called Keys to Empower Youth.

"The idea was that we would bring middle school girls here from the community. Many of them had never been to a college campus and they would get to experience hands-on high-tech activities that they wouldn't have access to in the community. Also, over the course of the day, they would meet a dozen young women engineers. Those were the college students here in the Society of Women Engineers, and that's also really important for them to see in front of them. You know, girls that are just a little bit older who have chosen this profession, who are making their way, so that they can feel like it's an accessible choice for them. That program is now 25 years old and it's spread to multiple institutions."

But, Bhatia says, more needs to be done. Though women are increasingly choosing STEM careers, engineering in particular is still a highly male-dominated field.

"We're not there yet and the slope of the line is not steep enough," she says. "If we keep going at the current rate, it's going to be 2092 before we have parity in the engineering world. It's just not fast enough."

Bhatia maintains hope, however, and sees her own story as an example of what's possible.

"I'm the daughter of immigrants," she says. "I came from a part of the world where even today, not all girls are educated. And I had my parents invest in my education, and I had the benefit of amazing public schools and private institutions, and have found myself in the halls of one of the most elite places in the world. Working with the best and the brightest minds on the problems of our time. And I think that I stand in a lot of ways for what's possible in this country, to collect people from all over and to point them to what matters."

Kudos to Dr. Bhatia for being a role model for women in STEM, and to the Packard Foundation for helping fix some of the less recognized leaks in the pipeline.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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