MIT’s Bhatia Refocuses Spotlight on Gender Diversity in Biotech

Xconomy Boston — 

Sangeeta Bhatia has been talking about the woeful lack of diversity in the life sciences and other high-tech industries since the late 1980s, when she was an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering at Brown University.

She thinks the situation is improving, but not nearly fast enough.

“I think the statistics are all getting better. What I like to say is that I’m just impatient with the slope of the line,” Bhatia (pictured above, left) says. “I have two young girls. I want it to be better already.”

Bhatia—an MIT professor, medical doctor, biomedical engineer, and biotech entrepreneur—is an advocate for women in science and engineering, and her long list of achievements have given her a platform to make her voice heard. Among them: she has co-founded three companies; developed innovative technologies such as functioning miniature human livers created using computer chip manufacturing techniques; and won awards such as the Lemelson-MIT Prize.

Bhatia, the director of the 30-person Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT, admits she sometimes feels uncomfortable in the limelight. “Science has a lot of mythmaking in it. The things that make me uncomfortable are that kind of mythmaking around a single person, because I actually really run a team.”

After some early publicity, she recalls saying to prolific biotech entrepreneur and MIT professor Bob Langer, “I just want to crawl under a rock. How do you do this?” He replied that it’s important for the public to read about science and engineering, and to understand what university researchers do, she says.

“The way I’ve gotten comfortable with it is to realize that it’s actually good for my trainees if I’m visible—to realize that it serves them to have people aware of the lab that they trained in,” Bhatia says. “And the other [way] is to try and make it so that the conversation serves this other goal, which I really care about, which is diversity.”

As the national conversation around diversity in high-tech industries has grown louder in the past couple of years, one thing Bhatia thinks hasn’t been discussed enough is why people should care.

“Of course, this is a matter of fairness and making the most out of our societal investments in education,” Bhatia says. “But if you also care about time-to-profitability and return on investment, it has been shown over and over again that [business] teams with women on them perform better. By a lot.”

There are a lot of ways to fail in biotech—a “risky, expensive, highly regulated business,” Bhatia says—so “success requires taking advantage of every possible creative solution.”

“Investing in diversity provides a tried and true competitive advantage that we simply can’t afford to leave on the table,” Bhatia says. “So, if I could change one thing about the current diversity discussion, it would be that having more diversity is good for the bottom line, not just a ‘nice to have.’”

The underrepresentation of women in high-tech industries—particularly in C-suites, board rooms, and venture capital offices—is not “just a pipeline issue, especially in the biological sciences, where there has been a robust talent pipeline for decades,” Bhatia says.

Unconscious biases and outright discrimination on the part of those doing the hiring or making investments play a role, Bhatia says. Another key contributor to the lack of gender parity—and a cause she says is not well understood—is when promising young women “opt out” of the industry or choose not to start companies.

There are a variety of factors that play into their decision. But Bhatia thinks she and her peers could help move the needle on gender diversity by more actively encouraging young women—particularly those at the PhD level—to become entrepreneurs.

“They’re at a really precarious age; they’re in their 20s, deciding what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” Bhatia says. “Virtually everyone I know that has achieved as a woman had someone at that critical time who said, ‘You can do this.’”

It sounds simple, but Bhatia thinks those conversations can make a huge difference—and they’re not happening often enough.

Bhatia says she is fortunate that she has had role models and supportive mentors throughout her life, beginning with her parents. They emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1965. Her mother worked as an accountant after becoming one of the first women to earn an MBA in India, Bhatia says. Her father was an engineer and entrepreneur. In past interviews, Bhatia talked about how her father encouraged her interest in engineering, including taking her as a teenager to visit an MIT lab that was using ultrasound technology to try to destroy tumor cells—an experience that helped pique her interest in developing devices to improve human health.

Bhatia and her husband, systems biologist Jagesh Shah, have nurtured an early interest in science and engineering in their two daughters—13-year-old Anjali and 9-year-old Karina. Shah works on Arduino circuit board projects with the girls, for example. “He’s a geek dad,” Bhatia adds. “I think he would describe himself that way.”

The girls also participate in “Keys to Empowering Youth,” or KEYs, an outreach program that brings middle school-aged girls to MIT’s campus to do hands-on activities in science and engineering. The children get to interact with MIT women students and experiment with lasers, microscopes, and other high-tech tools, Bhatia says. She helped start that program in 1993. It’s now run by the MIT Society of Women Engineers, and similar programs are now held in other parts of the country, Bhatia says.

She says her daughters enjoy science and engineering activities, but they also like art and playing soccer. “They’re kids. They’re curious. … They do lots of things.”

Bhatia doesn’t know whether her daughters will follow in the footsteps of their parents. She’s just glad that science, engineering, and entrepreneurship are “on their radar.”

“I think they definitely don’t have presumptions about science or engineering not being options for them,” Bhatia says. “I think the conversation they’re having for themselves—which is the right one—is, ‘Is this something that I would want to do, as compared to all the other things?’ That’s exactly what you want.”

“If they don’t choose it for the right reasons, that’s fine,” she continues. “Because not everybody’s meant to do this.”