You are listening to Uncommon Women on that podcast. Many parents ask their children what they want to be when they grow up. A doctor, a scientist and entrepreneur in some detail about it turned out to be all three. Yet even she, one of the world's most celebrated scientists with a successful track record creating biotech firms, found herself facing a problem. Women everywhere encounter how to be taken seriously. Working on a startup idea for a new company, Sangita was advised to bring along a man.
When she pitched to investors, she was told it's because people feel more comfortable if a man was involved in the business. Hello and welcome to Uncommon Women. I'm going to run Patricia and I bring you inspiring stories of women breaking barriers to make the world a better place.
Just society, but love to hear. My guest today is a woman of many incredible accomplishments. Dr. Sangeeta Bardia is a superstar of medicine and engineering. She's an electrical engineer, a computer scientist and a doctor. She's also an entrepreneur who has helped launch 10 biotech startups, offering 70 products, little works on devising solutions to some of humanity's most complex medical problems. She has spent years researching a type of enzyme found in our bodies to fight diseases like cancer.
She runs a lab that is 3D printed, micro levels that she hopes to turn into normal size levels that can one day be used for transplants.
She's developed technology to detect and profile tumors with a simple urine test. Basically, Sangeeta is what you call a rocket scientist at the world famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She's a professor of both engineering and computer science at MIT. She runs her own lab. She's the director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nano Medicine at the Institute of Integrative Cancer Research, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. The National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine in the United States.
Sangeetha, who studied and studied at Harvard and MIT and Brown University, is a prolific inventor and has won the Lemelson MIT Prize, better known as the Oscar for Inventors. But she wasn't always a superstar scientist when she was younger. She worked in a variety of odd jobs, including in a clothing store and as a gym instructor. One thing Santita has also studied is how science a field we think of as fair and impartial, has the same biases as other disciplines when it comes to women armed with data, Sangita is a vocal champion of gender equality.
Sangeetha, hello and welcome to Uncommon Women. Thank you so much for making the time to be on the show. It's my pleasure. It's lovely to be here. Sangeetha is a scientist and a doctor. How have you approached covid and how do I know? I'm sure you must have thoughts on how the world can beat this. Bendemeer I've discovered several ways. First, I think just thinking about those in my immediate world and how to make sure that they're safe as a scientist we are.
I turned to my lab very quickly, as did many of the scientists around the world, to ask how can we help? Are there things that we've been working on that are relevant in the near term or the long term for the virus? And we have three science projects that are going, which is exciting, super challenging to try and start those with a closed lab. But actually we have have done that, which is great. And then in that, in the city of Boston, we there's a consortium of investigators that put together the consortium of pathogen readiness.
And they asked me to co-chair a task force to help distribute emergency funds to researchers across town working in different areas. And I happily did that. And those are across vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, p e are the things that you're hearing about and to sort of accelerate collaboration both within Boston but also across the country and then internationally as well. So those are the some of the things on my mind I'm learning. I'm a student like all of you, learning every day of a data junkie.
So people have called it the info that make a lot of information. But do you think, you know, there are conflicting reports on whether there is the likelihood of a vaccine that might come about by your end or not? Obviously, in the history of humankind, a vaccine has never tried to be developed so quickly. So what are your thoughts on that as a scientist? Yeah, that's a great question. Know, I should say I'm not a vaccine specialist, although I am in this world.
And as you say, you know, the fastest ever vaccine developed is four years. So we have been shooting for 12 to 18 months. I think there are many voices. Hoping that it would come sooner, I would say 12 to 18 months is actually the most realistic number that we have. There's a great vaccine tracker that I like to use. It's put up by The New York Times. And you can see there's one hundred vaccines now in trials as of yesterday, three and phase three, which is the definitive trial.
So I think we we will get there. We absolutely will get there. I think there are many promising approaches. But to have a vaccine that's safe enough for the population, is this really a very high bar to give it to billions of people? And so, you know, while I appreciate the desire to go faster, we also really need it to be safe. I think I personally don't see it happening before year, so. Right. So we have to basically learn to live with this virus.
All right. Well, enough on covid, which I know that we're all sort of thinking about a little too much, obviously. But Sangeetha, you are the living embodiment of every Indian parent's dream with your numerous degrees and scientific awards and of course, your running your own lab at MIT, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. You were born and raised in the US. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sure I am. So I'm the daughter of Indian immigrants. I grew up in a family. I was one of two girls, like many, I suppose, Indian families that really believed that education is the way forward. And so my parents need a lot of sacrifices for myself and my sister very early on. So they moved to a town that had great public schools and they instilled in us all those Indian values. As you said in the introduction, will you be a doctor or an engineer, entrepreneur, the sort of the world of choices, but also, you know that we should expect to be the best and that the world wasn't necessarily going to do us any favors, that we had to fight for it and work for it and negotiate and learn and serve all of those things where we're a part of our upbringing.
And so I wanted to just rewind a little bit. You know, growing up, did you always feel inclined towards the sciences? I know that you've spoken about being very good at math and science as a child and that, you know, you would do things like take apart the family answering machine. So was that something that came to you just naturally or was that something I mean, did your parents really sort of inculcate that as well? I think I probably did have a natural affinity for science and maths.
I did absolutely love my biology class. And I was kind of what I would call a tinkerer. I was always sort of taking things apart and wondering how they work. And later I would become an inventor. But I don't think that I had that in my mind's eye as a profession. Even when I was a kid, I didn't know that, like being an inventor was a thing. And actually one of my daughters, I think, is like a real inventor.
And I say that to her all the time, like your you know, and she's part artist and part engineer and she's always sort of like making new things. But I didn't have that language, but I think they definitely had that sensibility.
And of course, you know, growing up in the nineteen eighties where there were girls and boys equally represented, you have a lot of girls in your way. Even when you went to when you were studying at the graduate level, did you have a lot of girls in your class studying the same things, mechanical engineering. And then of course later on when you were studying to be an MD and all those things, how was the split? Yeah, it sort of evolved.
It's interesting. You know, I think the one common theme, if you talk to women even today who have come up in the are now leaders in underrepresented professions, if you ask them what their experience was when they were coming up, many of us didn't notice the disparity in the system. And so just to be specific, as a freshman, I was in engineering. I remember this sort of chatter about women being underrepresented in engineering. But in my classroom there was 50 50 distribution.
And I thought I remember actually having a conversation with my best friend, who was also a woman engineer. Still, she's still my best friend. And we were like, why? What is all the fuss about? We there's plenty of women here. It must be that the story about women being underrepresented is is old news. And this is just a matter of time before it evolves. And yet what happened by the time we were 18 years or so, four years later, of the engineers that had we're going to graduate, only seven percent were women.
And so this is this is actually a very common experience, a disproportionate drop out. So women come in, whether it's an MBA class or a medical school class or an engineering class. And somewhere along the so-called pipeline, they leak out and the people call that the leaky pipeline. And so I've seen that my whole career. And indeed, by the time I got to graduate school, there were fewer women. Mechanical engineering is particularly underrepresented. It was one of two women in my class, but I think it keeps going now on the faculty at MIT and 19 percent women.
As you know, I'm an entrepreneur. So last year I was out there pitching my startup and I was one of very few women founders in the US. Two point seven percent of venture capital dollars actually go to women founders. So, you know, the numbers at the top get very, very small, but you don't feel it in the beginning. It's kind of interesting. I'm an adviser to a club of college students called the Society of Women Engineers, and I sometimes feel conflicted about how to talk to them about it, because on the one hand, they're not feeling it.
And I don't want them to feel it, like I want them to tackle the world like that. And on the other hand, I feel like I can't protect them from the reality which is inevitably coming. And so how can I how can I fortify them so that they can recognize it and get through it? And as a mentor, I think it's actually it's for me anyway. It's been a true kind of a conflict. Right. And it's interesting because, you know, the world looks upon the United States as probably it's the most developed society.
And these gender issues, one would imagine, wouldn't be as pronounced as they are in places like India, for example. But of course, what we find is that's not the case at all, that societies around the world experience the same kind of leaking pipeline when it comes to do women and retaining them professionally. Do I know that you have linkages with I know Karan Mazumdar Chavez has invested in your in one of your startup. So do you have professional links in India that that you work with?
I do. So I think one thing that happens as all of us rise in our professions, as we think about how to serve and what kind of constituent services are one of them, of course, as you've heard is for me as women in science. But the other one is my connection to India. And so I've served in different ways. I've been connected to DETI, which is the government body that funds research in India. As an adviser, I worked on malaria for about a decade and worked together with the Institutes for Malaria Research in India to work specifically on the organism that infects patients in India.
I've worked with TFR and Bombay and Cancer. And then and then I actually got to know Karen, who you mentioned, because she was connected to MIT and she had sponsored a program to help Indian scientists who were training in America, go back to India and start faculty careers. And I had a postdoc whose name is Nita saying she's now on the faculty of Italy. I'm super proud of her. And she was sponsored by this program. And so that's how I met Karen.
And we became friends, really? I would say. So tell us a little bit about some of your professional research and projects that you're working on. You mentioned glimpse, so maybe we could start with that. Yeah, sure. So glimpses of the company trying to get a glimpse inside your body the same way. And it's a it's a nanotechnology. It's essentially a shot that carries little tiny nanoparticle sensors throughout your body looking for disease. And when it finds the disease, these little sensors get activated by enzymes that the diseases make and the sensors liberate a little signal in your urine.
So that's a shot in a urine test and the signal comes out in the urine and you can turn that urine signal into any kind of test that you want for patients. So you can make like a paper test, like a pregnancy test that might be useful at the point of care. And we've made fancier versions that can be run in clinical labs. We're trying to use it for actually a whole host of diseases, a dozen different diseases that we've done in the lab.
So we're trying to replace basically biopsies. So we're trying to replace liver biopsies for diseases of the liver. Like Nash, we're trying to do things like early cancer detection. Most recently, we were working on trying to see if a child is short of breath, what kind of pneumonia they have. Do they have bacterial pneumonia for which antibiotics or viral pneumonia? And actually that project had been funded by the Gates Foundation. And we're now pivoting it obviously to Tacloban, which is a viral pneumonia.
Yeah. So it's been a really it was an exciting project. And in the lab, we had the first sort of hub on the back in twenty eight and the breakthrough paper in twenty thirteen. And it was soon after that that I was talking to Karen about, about how to take this into patients. And the problem was that we were kind of stuck on as we have made a shot, which the regulatory agencies we're going to regulate like a drug.
Right, because if you're going to inject something into someone, it should be safe. Right. And it's very well known. That's a very expensive, long path for a young company and on the other hand, we were going to make a urine test, which is what we would call a diagnostic. And diagnostics typically are not well reimbursed. Nobody really wants to pay for diagnostics, so we don't want to pay for the medicines. So we had sort of invented our way into this puzzle where we had a very expensive development path as a company and not clear business model for return on our investment.
So that was what I was stuck on. And when currency started the company, the second person to see the company was actually that women that I mentioned up at college, my best friend, the engineer, she went on to become a venture capitalist. So the two of them funded me together and they said, we trust you to figure it out. And then we did. I assembled a team of advisers and we sort of have the business model and we got a way to get through the FDA as a device and actually reimbursed in a different and more creative way.
So once we figured that out, the businesses thrived and raised girl and now there are twenty five people there in the clinic to be in clinical trials. That's been really exciting. Right. And so basically that's a non-invasive way of trying to figure out whether a person has particular diseases and and how to respond to that. Right? That's exactly right. So instead of getting a biopsy to see if you have a disease, you would do a urine test right now.
The other thing, though, that is so fascinating is this. These 3D, these micro levels that you've developed, I mean, it just that's just sounds mind boggling. And the fact that I know you in the future, we might be able to grow a liver in a lab that would then avoid and circumvent the entire transplant process because that actually takes so much time. It's very hard to find a liver that matches. So tell us a little bit about that as well.
Sure. This is actually I'm actually just starting this company this week. We're negotiating with the investors right now. And the company is called Satellite Bio, and the idea is to create a satellite organ. And so, as you know, when you have a failing organ, what's done today is patients are put on a wait list for organ donation. And then when an organ becomes available, which means someone else needs to pass away, you take out the organ and you put in a new one.
And the idea behind satellite is that you actually leave the organ in place because that's a very invasive and dangerous surgery. And you just add this kind of little booster into the belly with a simple sort of one day procedure. And that would give you kind of enough of a booster that you wouldn't need a new organ. And with the liver, for example, you can actually live with about 10 percent of your liver mass. The rest of it is reserve.
And so this poster doesn't have to be that big. It's about the size of a coaster for a drink. What makes it work is having liver cells in it that do the work of the liver and they need to be happy in their environment like all of us. And so what we've been working on this actually twenty five years with a collaborator of mine who is a guy named Christian and he's an expert in making blood vessels. And so what he does is three different blood vessels into this little device.
And what we do is we engineer the environment of the liver cells so that they are basically in clusters that make them happy. And we combine these two in a device that can be implanted and it basically like recruit's blood vessels. So it sort of connects itself to the circulation and then supplies the function. I mean, 3D printing, blood vessel, 3D printing, LeBeau's it just all sounds like a different, frankly, a different planet. But, you know, biomedical engineering, which is, you know, your is your is what you do.
Explain that to us because it's it's just seems to be a field that is just poised to grow exponentially and is in is likely the future of science and medicine. Biomedical engineering is actually part of a larger conversation happening in science right now that people call convergence. And it's the idea that, you know, historically science had these sort of pillars, biology, chemistry, physics, even within engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and chemical engineering.
And actually, it's a really interesting moment where these things are converging on each other. So you can use the tools of mechanical engineering, like 3D printing to print biology cells, but also chemistry like materials to hold those cells. And all these fields are sort of coming together. And it's it's really accelerating the pace of discovery. And layered on top of that is a moment now where we have computational speeds that allow us to have artificial intelligence. So the data that you generate as part of this discovery process can be processed in a way where machines can learn and see patterns that we couldn't have seen before.
So it's like the convergence of the sciences and the convergence of the engineering sort of hardware tools. And now the convergence of A.I. are being brought together in just a new way in my lab and elsewhere. Right. So tell me, how does one become an inventor? I mean, you've invented so many things, but, you know, it's like when a child is small and they probably are asked, you know, I want to be in D.C., I want to be an astronaut, but that most children will not end up becoming astronauts.
And the same thing with invention, right? Oh, I want to invent something, but actually, you don't really end up doing that. How does one become an inventor?
For me, it's sort of like being an artist you're creating in an applied way. And so anybody can be an inventor, truly. You can invent a new set of brakes for your bicycle. It can be the simplest, simplest invention. And, you know, there's a formalism to being recognized as an inventor, which usually has to do with filing a patent and protecting that invention so that you can grow it up in the world. But but I think everyone really at their core is an inventor.
Right. And of course, for you as an inventor, the human body is the canvas in the mind. Still, the funnest thing for me is getting together with a group of my students, which I do every Friday. We have a group brainstorm and I tell them to spend 20 percent of their time tinkering. So 80 percent of the time they should work on projects that we've agreed around. But 20 percent of the time they should just do things that are truly they could be fun.
They could be things they're curious about. They could be frivolous. They call them submarine projects because they're under the radar. And on Fridays, what we do is we surface those and we know that they're that they want to share and we kick them around and we shape them and we take them to physicians to say, like, how could this be useful? Or This is what we've invented. And and often what's really interesting about the process of invention is that the thing you think you've invented is actually useful in a completely different domain.
So, you know, the technology that I mentioned to you, we had invented that for cancer. And I think it will be useful for cancer. But the first thing it's going to do is replace a liver biopsy. And so I think there's there's even a there's a post invention kind of maturation process where you find out what you really have invented and how it's useful in the world, which is just really fun right now. I noticed when I was watching one of your videos online that you have a lot of women in your labs.
And I want to switch tack a little bit now and talk about the advocacy work you do on behalf of women in science and biotech and engineering. And although we know from all the numbers that women are more women are choosing science careers, you've conducted a study that found systematic biases against women in these fields. And engineering, of course, is still a highly male dominated discipline. And you said if we keep going at this rate, it'll be 20, 90, two before we have parity in engineering.
Why are we why is the world still so behind on this front?
You know, interestingly now actually really well known answers. So this is not really a mystery anymore. There's there's a great documentary which I recommend called Picture a Scientist, which was just launched last week. And you can Google it. I think it's worth seeing. And it describes really what we know now about how women leave this profession of science and technology and engineering. And it has to do really with two things. One is overt discrimination and sexual harassment, but the second is what's called implicit bias or unconscious bias.
And it turns out that there's a whole field of study about unconscious biases that we all bring to gender and race that have to do with how people get resources, get promoted to get recognized, get sponsored, which is really important to rise. And and those things are really where we need to place our efforts in the system. And the solutions are to gather data, to document the pipeline and whatever institution it is to institute policy change and then to monitor that.
And so if if you've decided that you want to interview people at a certain rate, hire people at a certain rate, that you're never going to have a seminar that only has male speakers, whatever it is like, it's great to recognize it and make the policy change. And then somebody actually has to monitor that. As it turns out, that actually requires energy. And if you take your eye off the prize, although all the rest doesn't make a difference, it's something.
We've seen that you can really backslide, right, even after all of that work, I mean, the great news is, you know, so at MIT, they did a study in the nineties, a hero of mine name Nancy Hopkins, who's her father. That movie was part of a group called the MIT 16, which was all of the women at MIT in the School of Science at that time. So very few. And they got together and realized that they measured their offices with a measuring tape and realized they had smaller offices teaching lower than different salaries and all these things.
And they they got the data together. They went to the president and the president got behind them. And over the next 15 years, they doubled the number of women faculty. So it is, on the one hand, really disheartening that we're still in this position. But on the other hand, collective action really can change things. So that's what I try and focus on at the moment. I'm really looking at women in biotech, which I mentioned earlier, where the number of women founders is in the single digits, incredibly low.
Right. And and how to change that? I'm trying to sort of use that same roadmap for this project.
And, you know, you've obviously fundraised and you've started so many biotech firms and studies have shown that a business idea delivered by a man is treated more favorably than when it's delivered by a woman. What is your own experience been? Because often you have been the only woman in a room, I'm sure. And so tell us about your own experiences, fundraising, pitching ideas. Interesting. I would say, you know, because I was a woman engineer in some ways I'm a little bit numb to it.
You develop what I call coping strategies for being underestimated. You know, that you walk in the room and people will look at you and they will think you are younger than you are, which at this point is welcome and they will underestimate your sort of gravitas. And so you find ways to flex your credentials or answer a question very precisely so that they understand really like who they are contending with. Give us an example of something that all of us who are listening can go out and use when we might be faced with that kind of a situation.
Somebody asks you, what do you think about this? It may be your personality as it is mine to to participate sort of casually in the conversation. But if if it's a setting where you very rapidly need your audience to know how big your brain is, you have a much bigger, deeper referenced answer than you would otherwise in your case. You would talk about the media and the scope of the audience and the marketing campaign. And in my case, I would talk about nanotechnology and the history of nanotechnology in the moment that we're in, in a way that it's actually for me it's a struggle because it's not really my natural frequency.
But I've learned that I need to do this is going to waste a lot of time if we get through the whole meeting and people don't take me seriously. So I might as well calibrate them upright and then we're going to have a much smoother hour together. Right. And do you find as a woman and please forgive me if you think this is a stereotypical question, but is it hard to ask for money, for investment as a woman? Do you find that or is it does it come naturally to you?
Yeah, that's a great question. I always say actually, it's my Indian upbringing that helped me in this regard. And I think of the world really as a marketplace where I'm like negotiating for that handbag. I think I really I feel that I was raised with that perspective about like I'm going to get the best deal. And actually, I tell everybody who works with me and my startups, like, you're going to you're going to think that I'm going to go and I can't help it.
Like, this is how I was wired. I'm an Indian woman. I need to get the best deal. And I believe in it in a very data driven way. I mean, I benchmark everything. I see what other deals are out there, what prices they got and what I think I deserve. And I want to get that price. And so while it's not always a comfortable conversation, I feel like I got used to it. And what I would hate is to going to bed at night knowing that I didn't get the best price.
So I, I was I didn't ever want to be that woman who didn't get the best price. Right. I wanted to just end by asking you what advice do you give your students? What advice would you give young men and women out there who are looking to embark on on a new career and are trying to figure their way out in the world? What do you tell your students? I think there are two things. And one really is to find your passion.
And I can just see my teenagers rolling their eyes right now because we say this to the most. So what does that mean? You sort of walk in a direction and and and adapt as you go, because you're going to learn, learn where you're going based on what's in front of you. So it may not be today that the field you end up in even exists, but also importantly, just as importantly, is finding your tribe. And I think, you know, for me, being in a profession where there are very few women, I've had to collect women from all parts of my life.
And very few of them are actually what I would say at work. But I have I have my sisters and executive, my best friends, a venture capitalist. I have amazing women around me. And I collect them and I keep them close because the journey can be lonely. So it's on the one hand, important to find your passion, but also to find your people and the other things are important. All right. Well, thank you so much, Sangeetha, for spending that time with us.
It's been wonderful to have you on the show. It's great to be here.
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