Last week Padma Lakshmi launched her appointment as a visiting scholar in the Center for Gynepathology Research by immersing herself in MIT labs and classrooms before delivering an evening talk.
“I went around and tried to learn as much as I could from people who are doing amazing and beautiful things. I know what I’ve learned will inform my work in the future,” she told a packed auditorium at MIT’s Open Endoscopy Forum, which features TED-style talks from leading gynecology surgeons and MIT technology pioneers.
Lakshmi is the host and executive producer of Bravo’s Top Chef; she’s also an author, an actress, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union, co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, and a vocal activist in the realm of women’s health. When MIT launched the Center for Gynepathology Research in 2009, she delivered the keynote address. Since then, Lakshmi has returned to MIT on multiple occasions to discuss women’s health issues and raise awareness about endometriosis among MIT students.
“I never expected to be holding a microphone at MIT,” said Lakshmi, who was hosted by a leading expert in endometriosis, Linda Griffith, an MIT School of Engineering Professor of Teaching Innovation, Biological Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering.
Lakshmi told students about how endometriosis had negatively impacted her life and career, until a treatment breakthrough at age 36 addressed the monthly pain, cramping, nausea, headache, fatigue, and excessive blood flow that the condition triggers. Her decision to speak openly about her condition was complicated, she said, emphasizing the power of connecting to other women via storytelling. “If we don’t listen and we don’t share, we cannot understand. We spend too much time sequestered in our own worlds. We need to share our stories because empathy fuels progress.”
Earlier in the day, Lakshmi met with MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and dean of engineering Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
“Your advocacy work for targeted research and increased awareness around women’s health issues has been tremendous,” Chandrakasan told her. “The Center for Gynepathology Research is at the forefront in exploring new frontiers in the diagnosis and treatment of gynecology diseases. Your insight and creativity will be tremendous assets.”
During her tour, Lakshmi discussed food and nutrition with MIT students working on “Engineering the Human Gut,” a three-year project to build a highly instrumented model of a tissue-engineered human gut complete with microbiome as part of the New Engineering Education Transformation. “Nothing is done in a vacuum and nothing can be accomplished by staying isolated, whether it’s in cooking or the microbiome,” she told the students. “I really think it’s cool that at your age you’ve found that out — but I guess that’s why you’re at MIT.”
Lakshmi also visited with research scientists to discuss new developments in the diagnosis and treatment of gynecology diseases, including endometriosis, adenomyosis, and preterm birth. She toured the MIT Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics to learn more about MIT’s work studying and controlling the gut microbiome.
Her evening talk about the power of storytelling was a hit. “When are you going to run for office?” asked one audience member. Another captured the mood in the room with a deeply felt statement: “Thank you for what you’re doing for women.”