MIT’s Raman Lab: At the Forefront of Building With Biology

Biotech Concept Illustration

Ritu Raman leads the Raman Lab, where she creates adaptive biological materials for applications in medicine and machines.

It seems that Ritu Raman was born with an aptitude for engineering. You may say it is in her blood since her mother is a chemical engineer, her father is a mechanical engineer, and her grandfather is a civil engineer. Throughout her childhood, she repeatedly witnessed firsthand the beneficial impact that engineering careers could have on communities. In fact, watching her parents build communication towers to connect the rural villages of Kenya to the global infrastructure is one of her earliest memories. She still vividly remembers the excitement she felt watching the emergence of a physical manifestation of innovation that would have a long-lasting positive impact on the community.

Raman is “a mechanical engineer through and through,” as she puts it. She earned her BS, MS, and PhD in mechanical engineering. Her postdoctoral work at MIT was supported by a L’Oréal USA for Women in Science Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Fellowship from the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine.

Today, Ritu Raman leads the Raman Lab and is an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. However, she is not constrained by traditional ideas of what mechanical engineers should be building or the materials typically associated with the field. “As a mechanical engineer, I’ve pushed back against the idea that people in my field only build cars and rockets from metals, polymers, and ceramics. I’m interested in building with biology, with living cells,” she says.

Our devices and machines, from our phones to our cars, are designed for very specific purposes. And they are not cheap. Yet a dropped phone or a crashed vehicle could mean the end of it, or at the very least an expensive repair bill. For the most part, that isn’t the case with our bodies. Biological materials have an unparalleled ability to sense, process, and respond to their environment in real-time. “As humans, if we cut our skin or if we fall, we’re able to heal,” says Raman. “So, I started wondering, ‘Why aren’t engineers building with the materials that have these dynamically responsive capabilities?’”

These days, Raman is focused on building actuators (devices that provide movement) powered by neurons and skeletal muscle that can teach us more about how we move and how we navigate the world. Specifically, she’s creating millimeter-scale models of skeletal muscle controlled by the motor neurons that help us plan and execute movement as well as the sensory neurons that tell us how to respond to dynamic changes in our environment.

Eventually, her actuators may guide the way to building better robots. Today, even our most advanced robots are a far cry from being able to reproduce human motion — our ability to run, leap, pivot on a dime, and change direction. But bioengineered muscle made in Raman’s lab has the potential to create robots that are more dynamically responsive to their environments.

Daniel de Wolff, MIT Industrial Liaison Program

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