Spring 2019 Showcase: Meet Dr. Harini Krishnan

With the Showcase only days away, we’re continuing our interviews of the professors who will take part in our panel on being a women in STEM. Say hello to our second panelist, Dr. Harini Krishnan of Stony Brook University.

Postdoctoral Fellow, Miller Lab, Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Stony Brook University, NY, (This is my second postdoc).

B.Sc., Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology – 2006 – University of Madras, Stella Maris College, Chennai, India.
M.Sc., Biomedical Genetics – 2008 – VIT University, Vellore India.
Ph.D., Cell and Molecular Biology – 2014 – Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, Stratford, NJ, USA.

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Cell migration, tumor-stromal interactions, tumor progression, cancer biomarkers and chemotherapeutic targets.

CURRENT RESEARCH: To study the structure-function relationship of insulin receptor family of tyrosine kinases using single molecule microscopy and other biochemical tools.

FUTURE GOALS: My heart is in academia! (unless I change my mind somewhere along the line). A research faculty and mentor (at wherever) to understand the interplay of kinases and receptors in tumor cell migration and cancer progression.

Unwinding after a conference at a park near Nagoya University, Japan

What got you interested in your field?

Even as a middle/high school girl I was fascinated with Biology and in general how life works. I would go into a different world during Biology classes led by my beloved and inspiring teachers, Mrs. Mahalakshmi and Mrs. Padmini in India. I would be very upset when class was over! Initially I was interested in plants and genetic modification of plants. So I did my undergrad in Plant Biology and Biotechnology. During that time, I attended a talk about the Ras pathway and cell signaling. I became a fan of cells and cellular signaling instantaneously! Since then I have dabbled in various fields: genetics, cancer, biochemistry all of which only increased my curiosity to understand how normal cellular signaling gets disrupted in disease development, particularly in cancer.

When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science?

Chilling with my folks in Philly after my thesis defense.

As crazy as it sounds, I have always wanted to become a scientist, since I was a little girl. My parents will attest to that! So a degree in science happened by default.

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?

This is a very general question and the strategy to be implemented will depend on place and culture. For example, in developed countries there are plenty, and sometimes more, young women graduating with science majors at undergraduate and master’s levels in comparison to young men. However, the rates for women steeply decline when you look at the numbers at the Ph.D. level, postdoc, new investigator, or tenured faculty stages. In fact, the numbers only decline at progressive stages of a career in science for women. The numbers for African-American and other minority women are even worse. This holds true for women in urban areas in developing countries as well (like India). In rural parts of developing countries, there’s a different challenge – getting girls into school first! Government and non-government organizations’ programs to encourage families to send their girl children to school for economic and social progress, have worked in many rural villages in India.

Here are some ways to address these challenges:

  1. Women support women. WISE programs should be a universal thing. Perhaps include in schools, colleges, and all universities.
  2. Increase women only grants. There needs to be more small and/or big grants that are available only for women in STEM/Art (STEAM) at various stages of their career like PhD level and upward.
  3. Childcare support at every university/industry. Most women drop out to care for their children and are unable to return to business-as-usual. All institutions for higher education and industry need to either have their own childcare facility or collaborate with nearby childcare facilities to provide support at affordable rates for women graduate students, postdocs, and faculty.
  4. Supportive work environment for women postdocs and faculty. In many labs and universities pregnant women or women with children are viewed as unproductive! Many women lose their postdoc position renewals, have their projects mysteriously allocated to a different person, or tenure clock ticking for women faculty even during maternal/family leave. Policies need to be in place at all institutions to protect women who decide to have children by birth or by adoption from loss of work, projects, or tenure. I have myself worked in environments where I wonder if I could have had a child!

How do you think that administration/society/etc. can ‘level the playing field’ when it comes to pregnancy and childrearing – tasks that have traditionally been prescribed to the woman?

I think men should take responsibility in sharing household chores and child care irrespective of who in the family makes more money or has a better position or has “a lot of work to do”. In addition, the above 4 strategies to help more women stay in science would certainly help.

What have you found the most challenging about being pregnant and working in science?

Some days I don’t have as much energy as other days. In fact, I run out of breath walking from the parking lot to the building (who knew!). During that time, I find myself less “productive” (this is in comparison with myself when I was not pregnant, and not other people). I have to remind myself that it’s okay and it’s part of bringing a new life into this world [of science, maybe??? :)]. I do enough to keep projects moving forward, and in fact focus on important and relevant experiments. I seek help from my mentor and colleagues (who are super supportive b.t.w.) for heavy lifting. On the days I have more energy, I work longer days and end up hitting the bed soon after!

With my supportive, better half at Watkins Glen in New York.

Let’s say you’re having a rough week, what do you do or think to keep yourself going?

Yoga! I have been a consistent yoga practitioner for nearly 7 years. For me, that’s an outlet from everyday stress. And it has worked, time and again. I continue to practice my usual yoga routine here at Stony Brook in the Basic Sciences Tower on Mondays from 5-6 pm, Wednesdays 4-5 pm, and Thursdays 5-6 pm. (Contact Dr. Raafat Elmaghrabi via email if you would like to join as he organizes/coordinates the sessions). The only difference is now there are a few modifications to accommodate my growing belly!

Do you have any tips or advice for young women scientists in your field?

Here are some tips: (I need to constantly remind myself of these as well!)

  1. Find a mentor – Find a mentor who you can rely/call on anytime! They can be your thesis mentor, committee, postdoc advisor, family, friend… anyone who bats for you, when you are low in confidence. For me, it’s my thesis advisor. One day, within a few months of my first postdoc, I called him at 10 pm and said I didn’t want to be a postdoc anymore. He asked what I wanted to do instead and I didn’t have any plans. He told me I should go to lab and do the experiments the way I usually do. When I feel less confident and nothing works in the lab, I am reminded of these very simple words… do the thing you usually do!
  2. Stay inspired – It’s a different thing to be inspired by famous women like Serena Williams, Lady Gaga, or Sheryl Sandberg. Have someone you can relate to as your source(s) of inspiration. They can be your colleague, a grad student, or your friend. I even get overwhelmed by successful women professors, especially when I notice that they had postdoc fellowships or K grants! I’d rather be inspired by my friend who lost her postdoc renewal when she announced her pregnancy many years back but is now a successful early investigator shortlisted for prestigious grants in the UK and Europe!
  3. Don’t be too hard on yourself –  As my mentor says, the world is anyway so hard on you, why add to that and be hard on yourself!
  4. Network – Keep in touch with people who you meet at conferences or events (people who you like). Maybe a friendly, yearly holiday email with an update on your work would be sufficient. You never know when these connections can be of help (and in general the people who respond to you will be more than happy to help).
Loving the rain in Hawaii after a conference.

Most importantly remember that you can’t be your personal best everyday. Maybe it’s a day/time that will come in the future or it has already passed. It’s fine to do your best everyday but not beat records all the time!

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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