Ritu Raman

d’Arbeloff Career Development Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering

At the Forefront of Building With Biology

At the Forefront of Building With Biology

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

By: Daniel de Wolff

It would seem that engineering is in Ritu Raman’s blood. Her mother is a chemical engineer, her father is a mechanical engineer, and her grandfather is a civil engineer. A common thread among her childhood experiences was witnessing firsthand the beneficial impact that engineering careers could have on communities. One of her earliest memories is watching her parents build communication towers to connect the rural villages of Kenya to the global infrastructure. She recalls the excitement she felt watching the emergence of a physical manifestation of innovation that would have a lasting positive impact on the community.  

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

As a mechanical engineer, I've pushed back against the ideal 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.

Today Ritu Raman leads the Raman Lab and is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. But Raman is not tied to traditional notions 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 machines, from our phones to our cars, are designed with very specific purposes. And they aren’t cheap. But a dropped phone or a crashed car 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 bio-engineered muscle made in Raman’s lab has the potential to create robots that are more dynamically responsive to their environments.

Imagine, for example, untethered robots that can sense and respond to threats in the environment. “One of the big picture goals of my lab right now is to develop a robot that could sense and move towards a chemical toxin, release a payload to neutralize the toxin, and then self-destruct without the need to deploy any human intervention or risking any lives,” says Raman.

She is admittedly fascinated with robotics, but equally interested in the far-reaching impact that engineering muscle could have on a variety of fields. In terms of disease modeling, if we could create miniature versions of our organs in the lab, it might be possible to develop cheaper, faster, more effective ways to test new therapeutic drugs that could even be personalized to individual patients. Or perhaps we could make life-size versions of tissues or organs built to replace what has broken down or is diseased in the body. “If we can create these kinds of systems in the lab, medical applications could include understanding disease and trauma and developing new approaches to restore mobility to people who have lost it,” says Raman.

Raman’s research also opens the door to advances like lab-made meat and leather goods, which could significantly impact the agriculture sector and consumer goods. The possibilities presented by the convergence of biology and engineering may sound like science fiction, but the proper term for the emerging field is biofabrication. And Raman has literally written the book on the subject. Rather, she has written a book called Biofabrication (2021) that functions as a solid introduction to the field. In it, Raman addresses scientific impact while tackling environmental, economic, and ethical concerns, all in a manner that is surprisingly accessible. She says she targeted her book at a general audience because she wants people to be informed and feel empowered in the face of a new field that is changing rapidly and has the potential to affect our everyday lives in ways we never imagined.

She is simultaneously working to share novel discoveries in the discipline of biofabrication. She offers a range of classes and workshops to the MIT community and beyond to encourage open conversation around an emerging field, disseminate information, and inspire the next generation of engineers who will contribute to building with biology. In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion in her field and others, she launched a curated, searchable database of women in innovation and STEM at MIT (WISDM) as a way for people to identify, collaborate with, support, and promote women as scientific innovators, researchers, and venture founders.

At the heart of Raman’s endeavors is a desire to positively effect change in the real world, which is reflected in a deep belief in the MIT motto “mens et manus.” “I think forging meaningful connections between the Institute and industry partners is central to the mission of MIT,” she says. “If I want my research to have real-world impact, I need that kind of integration into the surrounding infrastructure and framework. My biggest dream for our research is that our discoveries leave the lab and have a positive impact on society.”