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NOVA ScienceNOW

Sangeeta Bhatia: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 07.28.09
  • NOVA scienceNOW

On July 28, 2009, Sangeeta Bhatia answered questions about growing new body parts, liver disease, encouraging kids to pursue science, balancing her career with motherhood, and more. 

Sangeeta Bhatia

Sangeeta Bhatia

Sangeeta Bhatia is a Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT Full Bio

Photo credit: Robert E. Klein/AP, ©HHMI

Sangeeta Bhatia

Intrigued by the notion of "artificial organs" while she was a college senior, Sangeeta Bhatia went on to become a pioneer in the field of tissue engineering. She is a Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT, where she directs a lab focused on the applications of micro- and nanotechnology for tissue repair and regeneration. Bhatia received her Sc.B. from Brown, her M.D. from Harvard, and her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from MIT. She has been awarded the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, given to "the nation's most promising young professors in science and engineering," the MIT TR100 Young Innovators Award, and the Global Indus Technovator Award. She is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. Bhatia coauthored the first undergraduate textbook on tissue engineering, is the cofounder of two startup companies, and holds 15 issued or pending patents. Despite it all, she describes herself as a "regular person" who gets lots of support from her scientist husband and nearby parents. Bhatia enjoys hanging out with her two little girls, generally finds time to attend a book group and yoga classes, and occasionally sneaks off to see a "girly movie" by herself.

Q: If we develop the ability to craft artificial organs for a modest price, would we then be able to re-grow entire body parts (arms, legs, etc.)? Would this technology replace robotic prosthetics? And would we then be able to grow artificial meat? (I'm very interested in biology, so please answer this question.) Kennedy Junior High School - 8th grader, Naperville, Illinois

Sangeeta Bhatia: There is a whole new field of re-growing body parts called 'regenerative medicine' where researchers are trying to grow organs in the lab as well as getting the body to repair itself. So far, most progress has been made on smaller body parts than a whole arm or leg, like individual joints or patches of skin or heart muscle. Some researchers are studying organisms like salamanders that naturally re-grow their limbs in hopes that this will provide clues on how to do this in humans. Eventually, these 'biological' body parts will probably complement prosthetics rather than replace them and some will be integrated together to form 'hybrid' biological/synthetic replacements. For more information on this field, see: http://www.hhs.gov/reference/newfuture.shtml

Q: Are you sure that the "dead animal smell" in your car isn't misplaced liver cells under the seat? Angie, Florida

Bhatia: Good theory. I've long since given up identifying the source of the "dead animal" smell. The only thing that seems to work is to leave the sunroof open at night to air it out!

Q: What, if any, impact did your elementary and high school teachers have on your interest in science and your eventual career choices? Katherine Bomboy, Nashville, Tennessee

Bhatia: My high school teachers (together with my parents) had a huge impact on my interest and eventual choices. Mrs. Schwartz sparked my interest in biology. While I came from a family that was good with numbers, my mom had passed up the notion of medical school after she heard about the dissection lab! But I just loved it—especially as it related to understanding human disease. Mr. Rodriguez taught physics which included basic engineering principles, although I wouldn't know to call them 'engineering' until much later. What I remember about them both is not just their passion for their respective topics, but how they taught with so much heart. My Dad helped me connect the dots from biology to engineering.

Q: My 18-year-old daughter, soon to attend Ohio State University, is a talented scientist, especially in biology and zoology, but she hates math. Is there any future for her in the sciences if she can't succeed in math? The world will be missing out if she is not able to develop her scientific skills without the burden of math she cannot pass. I loved your piece. It was inspiring for me and for her. Linda Swenski, Cincinnati, Ohio

Bhatia: I'm a firm believer that there is room for many different skill sets under the 'umbrella' of science. For example, science writing and science policy are ways to be engaged without being a science practitioner. Nonetheless, while it's easy for me to imagine ways for her to contribute to the scientific enterprise without mastering advanced calculus, some math is definitely important. It's the language by which our theories are tested. I wonder if it would be more interesting for her to be exposed to math in the context of biology so she could see how helpful it is. For example, bioinformatics has been crucial for the 'genomic revolution,' and math will be even more important as we enter this era of biological information.

Q: Hi! I enjoyed seeing the profile show about you, not only about your work but especially about your family and outreach to young women. I would like to ask you about how you strike your work-family balance and what your advice would be for me, a Ph.D. chemical engineer, currently director of research at a small biotech company, considering going back for an M.D. to get into health-related research. Did you do a residency, and if so, how did you handle having children during that time? Do you feel that a residency experience adds to your research? I would appreciate any advice you have and, if you would consider it, a mentor relationship with a conversation once every few months. Shravanthi Reddy, Gainesville, Florida

Bhatia: I would encourage you to think about whether you really need an M.D. to get into health-related research. I have many chemical engineering colleagues who have found their way to biomedical research without formally going back to medical school. They read, take classes, go to conferences, and eventually become experts. Areas at the interface of health and chemical engineering include: drug delivery, tissue engineering, and nanotechnology. However, if you really want to treat patients with your own two hands, then medical school and residency are obviously necessary. I personally waited until I was done training to have kids, and I didn't do a residency because I was so eager to get going on my research. Having a medical education was helpful to me nonetheless for learning the language and culture of medicine and about how the human body can go awry. With regard to being a mom and a resident, I think it's definitely doable from what I see around me, but you should critically evaluate residency programs with this metric in mind.

Q: While watching the show, during the liver cell segment, I was fascinated that you figured out that those cells have to line up to communicate. It appears that you lined them up on a flat plate. I wonder if they would do any better in three dimensions? Gino Marchi, Galveston, Texas

Bhatia: That's a great insight! In fact, the liver architecture is three-dimensional. Hepatocytes (liver cells) have other cells all around them. A few years ago we developed a technique to study this where we organize the cells in three-dimensional shapes with electric fields and then 'trap' them in place with a light-sensitive gel that is the consistency of jello. These experiments are ongoing...stay tuned. You can find the paper at our website: lmrt.mit.edu

Q: In the future do you think that there will be more females interested in science? cynthia burrell, Portsmouth, Virginia

Bhatia: The irony is that women ARE interested in science and engineering, but they drop out as they progress through their careers. This has been termed the 'leaky pipeline' and our collective job is to plug it! Many people have looked at how best this might be done, for example, the National Academies recently issued a report entitled "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering" which you can access online. Positive, realistic role models are thought to be at least part of the puzzle, and the possibility of being one such example is what prompted me to reveal my whole life on TV!

Q: In the age of Google, I have sometimes tried to and with mixed results gotten ideas and tried to keep my kids' creative-and-imaginative flames burning, but I would like to know more about that from you. Can you share some of your ideas on how can I do more, as a father of 6- and 8-year-old boys, to not just read but comprehend and imagine, not just play but wonder? Bobby, Royse City, Texas

Bhatia: I'm lucky because my husband is a scientist too. We've tried some of the usual sources: books, internet, commercial kits, museums. Our most successful experiments are usually ones we make up as we go like visits to each of our labs on the weekends, which help them get a sense of science (and scientists) in action. For ideas, we also subscribe to a fantastic weekly newsletter entitled Robert Krampf's Experiment of the Week at thehappyscientist.com

Q: How old are your daughters and how do you manage to spend enough time with your daughters? Seema, Canada

Bhatia: They are 6 and 2 ½, and they are at really fun ages, so I don't know that it is ever enough. Besides the usual mornings and bedtimes and weekends, I do have a 'mommy day' once a week on Wednesday where I do the school pickup/drop-offs (with time for work in between) and we spend the afternoon together. Usually we visit my parents, do a project, or just hang out. It's a nice midweek 'fix' for me and them.

Q: Have you attempted to apply a "flow" through the functioning liver cells, by microfluidics for example, to see if they not only survive outside the body but filter out products normally metabolized by the liver such as alcohol, etc? Garrett, Vancouver, British Columbia

Bhatia: Yes. The work you saw profiled launched my research program into many aspects of the cell 'microenvironment' that are missing once the cells are isolated from the liver. As you point out, microtechnology is useful for controlling lots more about these cells than just their organization with each other. We have looked at interactions with other kinds of cells, structural proteins known as extracellular matrix, three-dimensional position, and exposure to dissolved chemicals in a flow device. Using such a device, we saw that the features of high-dose acetaminophen (a commonly-used fever reliever) exposure can be mimicked in the laboratory.

Q: Do you think by your research, medicines can be found to cure liver [diseases] properly? Now, once you damage [your] liver, there is no cure except through transplant. My parents both died of liver cancer. Thank you so much, Dr. Bhatia. Yuyu, San Francisco, California

Bhatia: I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. There are several alternatives to liver transplantation that are being developed: bioartificial liver devices that work like a dialysis machine but that contain liver cells to temporarily provide liver function, cell transplantation of new hepatocytes by injection, and tissue engineered implantable livers. Since the liver has the unique capability to regenerate (in some cases), there is hope that the temporary devices might help avoid a transplant completely by supporting a patient until regeneration occurs. Researchers are also working on stem cells as a source for these 'cell-based' approaches to liver disease since we will need billions of hepatocytes to support a patient. Progress has been slower in liver cancer, but new drugs are showing some effectiveness.

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