Mechanical Sciences & Engineering
National Science Foundation - Graduate Research Fellowship 2014-17
Society of Women Engineers - Chrysler Foundation Fellowship 2014
National Science Foundation - IGERT Fellowship 2012-14
For Ritu Raman, engineering is a family tradition. As she tells it, “My first memories are growing up in Africa where my father, a mechanical engineer, built communication towers in local villages to connect them to the rest of the world. When we moved back to India, my mother, a chemical engineer, launched a start-up designing efficient heat exchangers for factories. My grandfather, a civil engineer, taught me to do technical drawings of the insides of old watches and appliances.” It’s no wonder, then, that Ritu is following in her family’s footsteps.
Ritu’s specialty is bio-bots – short for “biological robots.” Working under the guidance of Professor Rashid Bashir in the Laboratory of Integrated BioMedical Micro/Nano Technology & Applications (LIBNA), Ritu is developing microscopic devices that are powered by actual muscle tissue. As she explains, “bio-bots are tiny living machines made out of mammalian muscle tissue with a supporting structure made of flexible hydrogel. Skeletal muscle in the body is one of the most powerful and efficient actuators, but the skeletal muscle we engineer in labs is not there yet. It can dynamically sense and respond to environmental cues in real time, like real muscle, and we hope that one day, we can match the functional force output and modular hierarchical design of native muscle as well! By introducing new materials into every engineer’s toolbox, we hope to inspire the next generation of makers to ‘build with biology.’”
Ritu’s goal is to better understand the principles for designing and fabricating structures out of bio-tissue. To aid the construction of her bio-bots, she uses a 3-D printer she developed. She explains, “I am trying to understand biology at a fundamental level. The first thing I worked on was to build a simple muscle-powered mechanism and control it with electrical signals. Next, I’ll work on controlling it with non-invasive external signals. Eventually bio-bots could make decisions and even evolve to respond to their surroundings.” (See a video of a walking bio-bot produced by Ritu’s lab here. It has received over 180,000 views!)
There are many potential medical applications of Ritu’s work: replacing living tissue in organs, creating prosthetics and implants, and targeting drug delivery in the body. There are also applications in environmental health and security such as sensing and neutralizing toxins and cleaning water supplies. As a side project, Ritu is using her 3-D printer to develop a “smart bandage” that will guide the formation of new blood vessels for damaged hearts, thus improving the functioning of scarred cardiac tissue.
In addition to her research, one of Ritu’s passions is encouraging more women to enter engineering. She is active in two campus organizations that support women engineers, serving as president of UIUC’s Mechanical Science & Engineers’ Graduate Women and publicity chair of the UIUC Graduate Society of Women Engineers.
Ritu applied for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship twice before winning on her third try, so she encourages others not to give up. One thing she did differently in her third application was to tout more of her accomplishments. She says, “With Ken Vickery’s [Director of External Fellowships in the Graduate College] assistance, I finally learned how to toot my own horn. This has always been difficult for me. It feels like bragging. But reviewers need to know what really sets you apart from the crowd, what really excites you, what you have accomplished both inside and outside the classroom, and what you’re aiming for long-term – basically how you hope to change the world with your research. Once I realized it was necessary for me to discuss all those things, I think it made a big difference. It obviously worked!”
Ritu’s professional plans include teaching at a large university, having her own lab, and advancing her bio-bot research. Her ultimate goal? “Eventually I’d like to transition into STEM government policy. I think we need more scientists and engineers involved in making policy decisions about funding and support for technology development, and I would like to be one of them,” she says.