“Gratitude and Optimism Never Go Out of Style” 5 Wisdom Nuggets with Ritu Raman, L’Oréal for Women in Science Fellow

“Gratitude is the key to happiness, and happiness is contagious. I am consistently surprised by how many people tell me that my upbeat attitude helped them stay positive. When I am optimistic, I bring out the best in myself and the best in the people around me.”

Ritu Raman is a postdoctoral fellow in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 2017 L’Oréal USA for Women in Science fellow. Her research focuses on the design of new smart materials that dynamically respond and adapt to their environment, specifically transforming how medication is delivered through the creation of a long-lasting pill device that provides oral medication more reliably, cost-effectively, and efficiently. As a L’Oréal USA for Women in Science fellowship recipient, Raman has the freedom to conduct her pioneering research and collaborate with other scientists, engineers and clinicians in this effort. Born and raised in India, Kenya, and throughout the United States, Raman now resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Yitzi: What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in India, Kenya, and the United States, never staying in one place for more than a few years. This meant always being the “new kid,” always needing to learn a new language or accent, always learning to adapt, survive, and thrive, regardless of strange new places or limited resources. My parents, who are also both engineers, are the center of my life. They have always encouraged me to do things for the right reasons, and to do them well. Their influence shaped my work ethic and inspired me to use engineering as a force for positive social change.

Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that has happened to you in your research endeavors?

As a graduate student, I built bio-hybrid robots (bio-bots) that used living skeletal muscle to walk. I worked hard to optimize the performance of these bio-bots, providing them with nutrition, exercise, and time to rest and mature. I was so obsessed with taking care of my bio-bots that I stopped taking care of myself — I started eating poorly, barely slept, and never exercised. One day, I went into lab even though I was sick and accidentally sneezed onto a bio-bot. At first, I was distraught that I’d ruined two weeks of data, but then I realized the bigger issue was how poorly I was treating the most complex biological machine in my life — my body! Since then, I have learned to value my happiness and health over my experiments, ultimately leading to personal and professional success.

Yitzi: What have you set out to accomplish with your research? Where do you stand in achieving that goal?

There are many cases of adaptation among us that are worth observing and exploring. For example, when you move a plant, its leaves turn towards the sun and when you cut your skin, it automatically heals. The ability of biological materials to respond to changing environments fascinates me and has inspired all my research. As a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, funded by a L’Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship, I am designing “smart” synthetic materials that dynamically respond to their surroundings. Using these materials, I build implantable devices for sensing and therapeutic drug delivery in the body. The goal is to one day start my own lab, where I will develop bio-hybrid machines (half biological, half synthetic) to solve engineering challenges, with a focus on healthcare. I also want to empower the next generation of “makers” to build solutions to the problems they face.

Yitzi: How will your research impact the field and greater good?

Because, engineered systems function in environments that are constantly changing, we need to plan for this, and my research will enable innovators to do just that. I am adding adaptive materials to the toolbox of every engineer and scientist, so they can design machines and systems that sense and respond to their environments in real-time. I hope that one day this type of adaptive design can be used to build smarter, stronger, and more sustainable solutions to global technical challenges.

Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started” and why?

1) Focus on goals external to yourself. Find a purpose in your life, a way to ensure that you have a net positive impact on the world. Engage and empower others, especially young women, to do the same. This will keep you grounded, focused, and humble.

2) Live by your conscience and your instincts. There is great value in gaining perspective from other people, but advice is often just people telling you what worked for them. That’s not the only way to do things — if you have a gut instinct, follow it. Worst case scenario, you learn from your mistakes! This is especially important for young women because we are constantly pressured to be less confident in ourselves and our decisions.

3) Assume the best of other people. Positive assumptions generate positive mindsets. If you trust that people will live up to high expectations, they generally will.

4) Gratitude and optimism never go out of style. Gratitude is the key to happiness, and happiness is contagious. I am consistently surprised by how many people tell me that my upbeat attitude helped them stay positive. When I am optimistic, I bring out the best in myself and the best in the people around me.

5) Cultivate and master mind and body. We all need adequate nutrition, exercise, and sleep, yet most people consistently ignore these basic biological needs. This perpetuates a cycle of tired, uninspired, and unhappy humans — not the sort of people that change the world for the better! Actively participate in self-care, and do not feel guilty about it. That is just what you must do to bring out the best in yourself. Again, this is especially important for young women. Women’s health issues are health issues. Repeat that until you believe it. Don’t guilt or shame yourself into neglecting your body!

Yitzi: Is there a person in the world who you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to have a conversation with my favorite YouTuber, Lilly Singh. Her work ethic, relentless positivity, and constant endeavors to better herself and help others (especially young women) motivate me daily. She has attained incredible success in the kindest way, and I’d love to thank her for helping me be the best version of myself.

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