Kristala L. J. Prather is studying the design and assembly of novel pathways for biological synthesis, enhancement of enzymatic activity and control of metabolic flux, and bioprocess engineering and design. She spent 4 years at Merck Research Laboratories before returning to academia. Korie A. Grayson spoke with Prather about her career path and what she is working on today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Longview, Texas
Education: SB, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994; PhD, University of California, Berkeley, 1999
Current position: Professor of chemical engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Book that made an impact on her: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Best professional advice she’s received: Pick a problem that is difficult enough that people will be impressed when you solve it, but not so difficult that you can’t make sufficient progress on the timescale of a tenure clock.
Korie A. Grayson: What made you go from Merck back to academia?
Kristala L. J. Prather: I intentionally chose to use industry as a training ground to help me develop ideas and learn a little more about how technologies are adopted and how new innovations in a lab might actually translate into what would happen in a company. I felt like I understood academia very well but didn’t have a clear sense of the kind of work that’s done and, more importantly, how that work is executed in an industrial setting. So when I interviewed for industrial positions at the end of my graduate career, I was very clear with potential employers that my goal was to work for just 2 or 3 years—that I was interested in applying for faculty positions. And that’s what I did. What I really liked about my job at Merck was working with the junior staff. Seeing them develop into independent scientists gave me the greatest joy. And that’s the essence of what an academic career is.
KG: I can relate. Before I started my PhD program, I worked at a biomedical device company. I was in industry for about 2 years before I started my program, and now I am at the University of Michigan as a postdoctoral research fellow in Lola Eniola-Adefeso’s lab. I get asked all the time, “Are you going to go into academia?” And I’m like, “I don’t know” or “I’m not exactly sure yet.”
KP: Not everyone is going to end up in academia. But for people who are interested in academic careers, what I always say is, “Somebody is going to get the job; why not let it be you?”
KG: That’s good to hear. Let’s track back all the way before you even became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What was your initial interest, or how did you get interested in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] field in the first place?
KP: I grew up in Northeast Texas with my older sister and mother. My father died when I was young, so it was really just the three of us. And I remember once—I don’t know if it was my mother or my sister—but someone dropped their necklace in the drain, and I’m like, “Give me a wrench.” I was the one who fixed it. It wasn’t until I was in high school my junior year that my history teacher asked me what I wanted to study. I said, “I like math and I like science.” She was like, “When you put those two together, they become engineering.” I liked chemistry, so she’s like, “OK, you should study chemical engineering, and you should go to MIT.” I really just trusted my teacher and was like, “If she says I should study engineering, I should study engineering. And if she says I should go to MIT, I should go to MIT.”
KG: How did you get into your specific research field within chemical engineering?
KP: I was always interested in the bio side of chemical engineering. So to me, what was really cool about biotech was the DNA. I loved the idea that you could cut and paste pieces of DNA and put them together. I loved the idea that there is a way to visualize DNA. For a kid who liked tinkering with things and being able to take them apart and put them back together again, the biotech side, or the genetic engineering part of biotech, is what really appealed to me. When I was looking to go to graduate school, I was interested in biomolecular engineering. So as a grad student, I focused on tools to engineer microbial systems to produce chemical compounds.
KG: How would you explain your research to an eighth grader?
KP: We’re surrounded by stuff. The clothes that you’re wearing are often synthetic materials, your cell phone case is a synthetic material—that’s stuff. And all that stuff has to be made in some particular way. Too much of it now is actually made from nonrenewable sources that are environmentally damaging. And so what we focus on is, “How do we actually get access to more renewable and sustainable stuff by taking advantage of renewable inputs?” So, using biomass-derived carbohydrates as inputs into the system as opposed to fossil-derived petroleum.
My work has always had this focus on using microbial systems or biological systems that produce chemical compounds. In my lab at MIT, the particular emphasis that we’ve tried to place is thinking about, “How do we actually expand beyond well-established pathways provided by nature? How do we get the biosynthetic capacity of biological systems to be expanded so that we can get access to more materials?” If we think about all the materials that are made, and if we want to move away from fossil fuels as inputs to make those, you have to have alternatives, which means we have to actually have the synthetic capacity for biological systems—in this case, to be able to produce some of those other materials. That’s where my lab started.
KP: So Korie, tell me what research you’re working on now. Lola actually gave a seminar to our department, so I saw some aspects of it.
KG: She probably talked about the preferential uptake of microparticle rods by neutrophils, a type of cell that mediates inflammation. We’re taking that type of technology and applying it as an antineutrophil therapeutic for an acute lung injury model of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
KP: What do you want to be when you grow up?
KG: I’m still figuring that out. I try not to think too far ahead because things can change. I took this postdoc and really wanted to have a Black female mentor and learn from her, but I’m still very interested in government regulatory affairs. I’m excited to see what will happen in the future.
KG: Kristala, I have one last question for you: How important is mentorship?
KP: Oh, it’s critical, and I’ve had wonderful mentors. The exponential way in which you can actually have a positive impact is by taking good care of the people who are placed into your academic and intellectual trust. That’s how we make a difference. All the rest of it, the papers and stuff, are great; the individual recognition, we love it when it comes. But that’s not really what’s going to make the difference. What’s going to make the difference is being able to have this multiplicative effect by actually sending more people out into the world who are ready to continue to do more and to do good and to give back.
Hometown: Everywhere but nowhere (military brat)
Education: BS, Norfolk State University, 2012; PhD, Cornell University, 2020
Current position: Postdoc, chemical engineering, University of Michigan, working in Lola Eniola-Adefeso’s lab
First job: Journey’s shoe store
Dream vacation: A peaceful adventure in Bali or Thailand