CHRISTINE ORTIZ studies ancient fish to create a new kind of human body armor

In a research laboratory at the vaunted Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a group of scientists, engineers and architects observes an ancient armored fish, known as polypterus, which has a completely flexible yet protective outer coat that changes shape in response to threats. Looking closely at its skin and scales, the group extrapolates design principles to help them create a new kind of human body armor that could protect soldiers at war, disaster area first-responders, even athletes.

Across the room, another team of scientists studies the molecular structure of human cartilage in order to understand why people who suffer from osteoarthritis feel pain. They map out a detailed and microscopic snapshot of the disease, work that could one day lead to personalized medical treatments for arthritis patients.

This may seem like the futuristic setting for a sci-fi thriller coming to your local multiplex, but it’s actually the real-life innovation incubator of Christine Ortiz, 41, professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, and Dean of the school’s prestigious graduate education program. The daughter of a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother and the eldest of three children, Ortiz today stands at the forefront of science, helping teams of the world’s brightest students conduct cutting edge research that may not only save lives but prolong them. Yet to her, the frontier she sees everyday is just “a great creative outlet,” she says. “You decide whatever projects you want to do, whatever interests you. You get to work with amazing students and they take things in different directions and expand and grow it. You plant the seeds and have ideas and help them along. And they flourish and go.”

It was in her own youth that her curiosity for how things worked was born.

Ortiz says childhood summers spent traveling around the lush island landscape of her father’s birthplace “inspired some early thoughts about nature and biology.”

As a fifth-grader in suburban Westchester County, New York, she remembers working on a school presentation about evolution. She did her research at New York City’s Natural History Museum, where she personally interviewed scientists, posing with them for photos after their meetings. When it came time to make her presentation at school, young Christine could hardly contain her enthusiasm—she addressed her classmates for nearly an hour. And all these years later, “I’m still actually working in that area,” she says with a laugh.

Today, Ortiz’s team of 15 researchers is divided into two groups. The musculoskeletal—or internal tissue—team that looks at human cartilage and bones with the goal of advancing the understanding and treatment for the wear and tear of joints primarily caused by aging.

The second team focuses on exoskeletal structures—or external tissue—modeling organisms, such as mollusks, crustaceans and insects, with natural body armor that’s flexible, transparent or extreme enough to endure conditions as harsh as deep sea volcanoes.

The eventual applications for the protective wear they’re trying to create include transparent armor, biochemical toxin-resistant armor and blast-protection technology. “You can think of so many areas where protection is needed,” says Ortiz, who has secured patents for initial designs, which could be commercially produced by her own start-up, or licensed to a private company or the military. “Clearly, human body armor is of interest.”

Ortiz, who is married and shares her home with two canine companions, Snowball and Peanut, credits family and culture with her success. Her father, a mechanical engineer, and her mother, a nurse, instilled in her the importance of education, and encouraged her and her younger twin brothers to believe they could create anything they could imagine. “As long as you worked hard and did it at a high level,” says Ortiz, “ there were no barriers.”

%d bloggers like this: