Professor Paula Hammond on science holding the key to a better life

January 3, 2018

Prof Paula Hammond is the David H. Koch Chair Professor of Engineering at MIT, and the Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. She is a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the MIT Energy Initiative, and a founding member of the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnology. Prof Hammond has published over 200 papers, and holds over 20 patents based on her research at MIT. 

She does extensive work at the nanoscale to develop biomaterials for cancer treatment, next-generation batteries and drug delivery. In this conversation, Paula shares with us her passion for making the world a better place, and encourages under-represented minorities to join the fascinating world of science.


“There are so many important problems the world is facing. Science and technology holds the key to finding solutions to these problems. If the best and the brightest minds are not working on them, we are not going to be able to survive in the way that we want with the quality of life we desire”


Why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?


Science is the key to everything: From new solutions needed in human health to the design of approaches and technologies which are important for our future existence. Science is also about understanding how everything we observe is connected and how things work. We all should be intrinsically drawn towards studying this because it is so fascinating. Science enables us to address some of the crises humanity is going to face; such as hunger, water scarcity and a degrading environment. Advancements in science and technology hold the key to find solutions to these crucial problems.

If the best and the brightest minds are not working on them, we are not going to be able to survive the way that we want with the quality of life we desire.


Many people, especially the younger generation, are excited about the possibility of creating positive change in the world. It is important to help people understand that science empowers us with the tools to enable this transformation and create a powerful societal impact. For example, people who understand the power of the internet might get excited about computer science, or programming in particular.


In order to encourage more people to get interested into sciences, we, as scientists, must start talking more about technology, by describing how simple things such as vaccines, water treatment systems and crop management work. The media and scientists need to engage more in order to communicate what we do in simple words which are understandable to all. This is because many people lose interest when they do not understand jargon. Simple explanations should engage people for long enough to explore the matter in further detail.


Furthermore, newer ways of communication should be implemented to be able to reach a wider audience. Sometimes, adding science to a broader storyline can be compelling. I have seen this personally when interacting with schoolchildren who watch the crime drama CSI. Some wanted to become forensic investigators and all of a sudden, so many were interested in looking through a microscope.


A video published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation mentions that chemistry captured your imagination when you were 15. You planned to be a writer, but your favorite high-school teacher turned out to be your chemistry instructor. How exactly did that come about? Do schools need to do more to ignite the spark in young people’s mind?


My chemistry teacher definitely had a significant influence on my career choice. I had a strong science and maths background, but equally strong reading and writing skills, leading me onto the path of becoming a writer. However, when I attended my chemistry classes I suddenly became fascinated by reactions and the ability of things to change colour or to generate heat. These observable effects made me stay in the laboratory longer. My chemistry teacher - who was a woman - once asked me whether I had thought of a career as a chemical engineer since it combined all my interests. The conversation I had with her eventually lead to the change in my career goals.


Overall, there were several elements involved in my decision: Firstly, my teacher was able to spark this motivation to pursue science. Secondly, we had practical chemistry classes. I would probably not have been as interested about chemistry if I didn’t have the experience of actually working with chemicals in the lab, and had only read about these things in theory.

Unfortunately, the practical aspect of science instruction is not commonplace. In the U.S.A., good high schools generally have well-equipped chemistry laboratories, but that is not the case in many schools which have lower budgets devoted to science teaching. There are many schools in other countries which have even fewer chemistry labs than we do. Universally, we are missing out on a lot of talent because many students cannot engage with science on a practical level.


When considering igniting the spark of curiosity amongst children, the earlier the better. My high school teacher had an impact on my career choice, but if we get pupils motivated earlier, such as in the first, second and third grade, it is going to have an even larger impact.


Both your parents had careers in the sciences- your father has a PhD in biochemistry and your mother has a master’s degree in nursing. Did your background and upbringing influence your love for sciences?


In terms of my own background, I was one of three children with an older and a younger brother. My older brother got a chemistry set as a birthday present. I got a “build-a-heart” Christmas gift and we also had an art set. I was in an environment where early scientific, artistic and musical education was encouraged.


My parents gave us the idea that we could be anything we wanted, so that there was an abundance of choice. Eventually, I chose an academic career, my older brother became an urban planner and is now at a non-profit organisation. He examines how diversity at the work place can be extended. My younger brother Tyehimba Jess became a poet and recently won the Pulitzer Prize.


How do you personally try to promote science? How did the video about women in science come about? Does the media approach you or is it the other way around?


The Chemical Heritage Foundation approached me saying they were doing a series on women in chemistry and they actually put together the entire interview. In some other cases, I was approached for a set of stories for under-represented minority students and a friend has put together a book about women of colour of science.

It is common for a school, a group or an organisation to contact me in order to arrange a visit or a talk. I do quite a few talks at schools and enjoy it.


You started your bachelor’s degree at MIT at a time when women still made up only one-fifth of the student body and the proportion of students of color was even smaller. Did you face any drawbacks because of your gender? How can we attract more women to science?


These are all really complex issues. When you are a person of an under-represented minority, you cannot really become an outsider and see how you are treated from their perspective.


When I started my undergraduate degree at MIT, there were only around 17% women and less than 5% of black students at that time. However, when I first arrived on campus, I suddenly felt surrounded by kindred spirits. People were talking about what they were really into, and were excited about their work without fear of being called geeks. At the same time, I was apprehensive about being less qualified and less intelligent than my peers. Sometimes, I used to think I was at MIT because of some special programme or because someone made a mistake. Especially when doing my problem sets I used to think “everyone else knows the answer, but me.” This lack of self-belief keeps one from learning by asking questions to colleagues. My fear made me work harder and when I realised that I could keep up with everyone else I became more engaged and more vocal in classes.

Ultimately, I realised I knew just as much as the person next to me and that we all come with different handicaps, which all even out. Being able to gain this sense of confidence is crucial. It is definitely different being a woman in engineering, because you are aware that many people have different expectations when they meet you for the first time. You have to plunge ahead and do your best. Eventually people recognise how good you are. Personally, I was always able to get through the noise of assumptions because I don’t dwell on them, and just get on with my work.


Do you feel that you have had sufficient support through-out your career and have you had people that inspired and mentored you?


I was supported along my entire journey. When I first started at MIT there was a group composed of all the minority students. We knew each other well and formed a strong alliance. This community was a source of encouragement, with students helping each other with homework, sharing each other’s notes, and seniors giving job interview guidance to juniors. There were also programs, such as tutorial sessions run by the black student union. It is imperative to find a group in which you are made to feel comfortable, where you are supported and cheered up. The faculty and its staff were also always present for us.


I had extremely supportive people around me in every phase of my life. My parents and my friends were always there. As I moved along I found that mentors were instrumental. When I returned to MIT for my PhD, I also chose a thesis committee consisting of people who supported me and provided advice.

My thesis advisor, Michael Rubner was an important mentor for me. Though I was excited about his research, I was most inspired by how he maintained a good work-life balance by clearly set boundaries. He had the ability to go home at night, despite being a junior faculty member. Since I wanted to have a family, I used him as a role-model.  Another role model has been Robert Cohen, who is a senior faculty member in polymer chemistry. He was such a cheerful person. There is a bit of a young child in him. If you discover something new he is the person who encourages you and your findings. Every mentor gives you different advice. Some of them are going to be your best critics, some are going to be your cheerleaders and some of them can be models for how you can live. My husband was a wonderful cheerleader for me.


Why did you return to academia after you started to work in industry?


I returned to academia because I felt it gave me the ability to think of any new idea and execute it, as long as I got funding. The opportunity to take ownership of your project, shape and mould it into a real solution is something unique to academia. In industry, there are some wonderful and exciting projects as well. Scientists and engineers who go out and solve the world’s problems in industry are also doing something special.


However, what drew me to academia was the ability to work with a group of young people and bring an idea to fruition. The other, less-talked about reason is building an academic family of students who eventually go out and start their own lives.  Over time you build a family of alumni and mentees, which is really amazing.


In simple words, what do you work on and how does it benefit the world? What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science?


I am very interested in research on treatments for human diseases.  Those include, infectious disease, cancers and cardiac diseases.

In my research area, I am excited about some new tools that have been developed, like CRISPR-CAS and other gene-editing tools. Increasing our understanding of the micro-biome and its impact on the world will be very interesting for the future. Developing uses for these tools to create solutions inside and outside the body, such as designing treatments and positively changing human and environmental health would be extremely beneficial. However, all these tools need be considered with respect to ethics and we need proper legislation.




More information about Prof Paula Hammond and her work can be found here.


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