Rebbecca Richards-Kortum

University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumna and bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum was recently named a 2016 MacArthur Fellow along with 22 others. In addition to being named a fellow, Richards-Kortum received a no-strings-attached $625,000 grant for her exceptional creativity and potential to contribute to her field.

Richards-Kortum said she had no idea she was being considered for the grant.

“You don’t even know that you’ve been nominated,” she said. “It makes for a really nice and surprising phone call.”

According to the MacArthur Foundation website, “The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.”

Nominations are made externally, then evaluated by an independent committee, which then makes its recommendations to the President of Directors of the MacArthur Foundation.

Richards-Kortum plans to use the grant to improve the health of infants in Malawi. She wants to focus on district hospitals and the resources and technology necessary to help them function more efficiently.

“When you walk into a nursery at a community hospital, many of them don’t even have heaters,” she said.

To help these facilities provide better care, Richards-Kortum wants to do a demonstration project showing how beneficial affordable technology can be.

“I want to provide quality care to these hospitals,” she said.

Richards-Kortum said the technology would help prevent infant deaths.

“If you want to address three major causes of infant death, you need 17 different pieces of technology,” she said. “These pieces of technology can show how infants breathe to detecting jaundice.”

In addition to using the grant for her own research, Richards-Kortum plans on maintaining and expanding the program Beyond Traditional Borders. She co-founded the program to give students the opportunity to find solutions to global health challenges. Today, BTB students can work with doctors and nurses in underdeveloped countries.

BTB students have created multiple pieces of technology to benefit the health field, such as an LED-based phototherapy light that treats jaundice in newborns.

If successful, the technology could be marketed throughout the world. BTB students also created an airway pressure machine that helps infants who unable to breathe on their own.

Richards-Kortum said the CPAP machine is now available in 23 different countries.

Richards-Kortum received a Bachelor of Science from UNL in 1985 and a Master of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1987. She went on to receive her doctorate-level degree from MIT in 1990. She is a professor at Rice University in Houston in the Department of Bioengineering.