After Ron Newbower earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at MIT and a PhD at Harvard, he veered away from a conventional career in solid-state physics despite the innovation booms in electronics and semiconductors. His wife, a nurse, introduced him to issues facing medical professionals, so he took a risk and accepted a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to do research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), with an eye toward a career collaborating with clinicians. “MIT made me realize I could work in any domain,” he says. “Without that, I don’t think I would have had the confidence.”
At the time, postdocs were rarely taken seriously in medical centers, and Newbower had to earn acceptance. He did just that with the Anesthesia Bioengineering Unit he assembled. He and his colleagues developed innovative physiological instrumentation and undertook pioneering studies on human error in anesthesia. These laid the groundwork for the standards of monitoring accepted worldwide today. They were also partly responsible for reducing deaths from such errors from 5,000 annually in the United States to near zero.
Boosted by his research successes, Newbower founded MGH’s academic Department of Biomedical Engineering. Ten years later he was appointed the hospital’s first non-MD vice president of research, and he ultimately became the Partners HealthCare System’s senior VP for research management. He worked to improve women’s career opportunities in medical research and cochaired task forces that formed academic relationships with MIT, Harvard, and the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. “You have to be an activist to make collaboration happen,” he says.
Newbower also cofounded the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), where he now serves full time as strategic director and chief technology officer. CIMIT, a nonprofit consortium that links Boston’s major teaching hospitals with MIT and other engineering institutions, fosters interdisciplinary teams that develop and commercialize novel and cost-effective approaches to improving patient care.
CIMIT sponsors hundreds of projects, some of which involve implantable and wearable devices, lifelike simulations to teach medical procedures, and computer programs to better analyze physiological signals. These days Newbower, who has two adult sons and lives in Acton, Massachusetts, with his wife, Donna, focuses on issues of technology and medical costs. “In health care, technology is branded as a villain in rising costs, when it should be part of the solution to this crisis,” he says.