By Shelley A. Sackett
SWAMPSCOTT — As the oldest of six children growing up in an apartment in bustling Barcelona, Spain, Dr. Mercedes Balcells-Camps shared a room with her three sisters and took public transportation or walked to school. From grades 1 through 12, she attended La Vall School, a girls-only charter school that met from 9am to 5pm and required students to wear a brown uniform.
On the first day of seventh grade, Dr. Balcells-Camps’ life changed forever when her science teacher, Mrs. Ustariz, told the class that their textbooks were only the tip of the iceberg and that there were more things waiting to be discovered than were written in those books. “I became a scientist that day. I wanted to discover the unknown in nature,” she said from the Swampscott home she shares with her husband and two daughters.
And become a scientist she did, earning a BS in chemical engineering, an MS in organic chemistry and a Ph.D. in macromolecular chemistry before moving to the US for a post-doctoral fellowship at MIT. “I was supposed to be in Cambridge for three years and then return to Spain,” she said. Instead, she became good friends with a colleague who introduced her to both her husband and to Swampscott.
Today, some two decades later, Dr. Balcells-Camps is Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s IMES (Institute for Medical Engineering & Science), a hub that brings together the community of students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty who work at the convergence of engineering, science and translational medicine. Through dual appointments at MIT and her alma mater, Institut Quimic de Sarrià in Barcelona, she has promoted innovative research and educational exchanges between both institutions and countries.
As a result of this collaboration, she created the International MIT-Spain Program and co-founded the Spanish start-up Regenear. She also chairs the MIT IDEA2 Global program, which provides mentoring and connections to biomedical innovators around the world to develop and realize their project ideas. “Science doesn’t work in isolation. It requires multidisciplinary and international approaches,” she noted.
On Thursday, March 21, Dr. Balcells-Camps’ colleagues will recognize her extraordinary contribution when she receives the MIT Excellence Award for Advancing Inclusion and Global Perspectives. The award is presented in six categories and represents the highest honor presented to MIT staff.
Since the day she found out she won the award, Dr. Balcells-Camps has been thanking her family, extended family and collaborators inside and outside the US. “You cannot build a bridge if you don’t have help in each side,” she said. Professionally, she hopes to harness the visibility of the award to continue growing programs to tackle global health problems through culturally sensitive patient-centric approaches. “What works here in the US may not work in a rural place like Latin America,” she explained.
She credits her daughters, Isabel and Sofia, with the resiliency and sense of humor to embrace their mom’s work, which has had them cross the Atlantic over 50 times and host hundreds of exchanges students and faculty. “I’m glad I make them proud because there have been sacrifices along the way,” she said.
While the excellent public schools, proximity to family and ocean views lured her to Swampscott, the more serious opportunity to fight disease and discover new tools that physicians could use to solve unmet clinical needs is what brought her to MIT. “MIT is the paradise of science, engineering and innovation and full of extremely motivated students and faculty. Early in my career, it became a dream of mine to come here,” she said.
Working with physicians and clinicians and industry partners to accelerate the path of new technologies, Dr. Balcells-Camps’ work has focused on building artificial organs and tissues made of biodegradable materials and human cells from donors. “I hope that in the future, in the same fashion we replace a tire on our car, we can replace the diseased artery when we have a stroke because of a blocked artery,” she said.
Currently, her research focus is development of a new model to understand the blood-brain barrier. This work is important for treatments of brain disorders, certain diseases (ALS, Alzheimer’s and MS) and drug abuse, such as opioid addiction.
Remembering the importance of her seventh grade teacher’s encouraging words, she offers this advice to young people thinking about pursuing a career in science.
“GO FOR IT! It is humbling and hard work but it is amazing what you can do when you unravel ‘science mysteries.’ The impact on society is tremendous. We need young talent in science and engineering if we want to understand how cells work and defeat disease, find better solutions to generate clean energy or create new smart materials for a better daily life.”