The Practical Activist (Linda Griffith)

Professor Linda GriffithAfter pioneering the techniques of tissue engineering, Linda Griffith is getting scientists to tackle diseases half the population is often too embarrassed to talk about.

On a freezing day in March, Linda Griffith, a biological engineer at MIT, joined thousands of women in a march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about endometriosis. In that disease, tissue from the uterine lining grows outside the uterus, often causing pain and infertility. Griffith marched with women from around the country, including Amber Wilson, a 30-year-old from Tennessee who said she’d endured years of unexplained pain until finally undergoing surgery last fall; the growth associated with the disease had acted as a “glue,” her surgeon told her, pinning her fallopian tubes to her ovaries and her ovaries to her pelvis. Griffith, too, suffers from endometriosis and has undergone nine surgeries, including an emergency procedure the week of September 11, 2001. She shares the mission of calling attention to a disease that affects one in 10 women of childbearing age.

Yet her activism has largely taken a different form. In 2009, she became co-director, along with surgeon Keith Isaacson, of a new Center for Gynepathology Research at MIT. One of the goals, she says, is to frame endometriosis—and other “below-the-waist” women’s health issues—in terms of technical puzzles that will appeal to male and female researchers alike. If you say you’re “curled up on the floor in a fetal position” because of menstrual pain, a lot of male researchers will act like “deer in the headlights,” she says. But if you say, “Let’s do a nonnegative matrix factorization”—a kind of mathematical analysis—they will do it. “If there’s a language to talk about the disease at the frontier of science, they will want to talk about it,” she says.