Everything Is About Curiosity

Dr. Harshini Mukundan, PhD


Q: What was your inspiration that led you into science?

Nobody in my immediate family had pursued a career in science. I grew up in India and suffered from diseases like mumps as a child, my sister had measles and chicken pox, we had a gardener who had tuberculosis — I used to think a lot about these diseases and what caused them and what you can do to prevent them. I was always interested in science. In 10th grade in India, you decide whether you want to go into the sciences or commerce or art, and science is what I chose to pursue. But then I actually had no clue what field of science I would go into or what a career in science would involve. In fact, I had many interests. I wanted to be an actress at one point. I wanted to be a writer at one point. There are so many different things that people are interested in. I went in for an undergraduate degree in microbiology because of all the different science topics that I could take; that seemed the most interesting to me. It was only when I went into my master's program, and for the first time performed the research needed for my thesis project and worked with scientists, did I really understand or begin to understand what a career in this field, what staying true to the sciences, might look like.

I began to appreciate that I really liked it, and I liked the idea of being able to ask questions every single day, of being able to follow through on your thought process and coming up with creative ways to investigate your thought process, and seeing if that actually had any validity. One of the things that I really love about my job today is that you get to work with and mentor young people. I have mentored several students and postdocs, most of whom incidentally are girls. As a mentor, you get to pass on your knowledge to them, but also learn and grow from their creativity and innovation. Your responsibility as a mentor is to try to keep that spirit alive. So often we grow up and lose our ability to innovate and create. We learn to comply. But not in science, and that is its beauty — and so I fell in love with it and began my career. I got a Ph.D. after that, I did a post doc, I worked at a startup company for a short time, and then I came to the Los Alamos National Labs as a post-doctoral fellow, was converted to scientist, and I've been here for the last decade. 

A lot of times you hear from young children that, "I want to be a doctor," or, "I want to be a scientist," and it's usually based on an impression that they have of somebody that they actually either know or read about — but most of the time they do not appreciate what a career in that field entails. I feel that doing internships and actually doing the job or following somebody who does the job on an everyday basis is important before you realize whether that's what you want to do for life or not.


Q: What area of science do you work in and what is your role in that field?

I work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the chemistry division.

I'm a microbiologist by training, and right now I work on developing diagnostics and surveillance tools for infectious disease. It involves a lot of the microbiology that I bring in from my training. This effort is multidisciplinary in that we work at the interface of chemistry and engineering and computational solutions, as well as microbiology and human anatomy and physiology, to build real-world solutions that can be used in clinics and hospitals — that is, at the point of care.

We also work on trying to develop solutions for the surveillance of infectious diseases so that when there's an outbreak or a new disease, we'll be in a position to better deal with it and handle it, as well as to have more timely responses to minimize the impact or the effect that those kinds of diseases might have on the population.


Q: Have you faced any obstacles because of your gender or your ethnicity, especially in science?

Yes, definitely, at the individual level. At every junction in life, I have encountered people that have been at least mildly discriminating because of race, because of gender, because of ethnicity, because of what they think you're capable of, because of preconceived notions. These individuals and their biases were very difficult to deal with for me earlier in life. It is easy to get discouraged when you are  young, impressionable, and tend to take things to heart. The support of your family and friends is indispensable at such times.

Over the course of time, I've learned to deal with a lot of these things. One of the main responsibilities I feel for myself as a mentor, when I have students from different ethnicities, girls, is to essentially strengthen them. I tell them up front that this sort of stuff is going to happen, and there's going to always be somebody who will choose to discriminate against you for some reason or the other — but you have to stand up against it. When they are on their own they should feel emboldened and strong and be able to say, "OK, this is not me. This is them, and I need to push back against any discrimination."

I think that one of the best features of working in Los Alamos for me is that it is a great community of people. I have wonderful leaders here who are women. They are women who have been working in science and technology, excellent leaders and inspiring scientists. The great thing about working in Los Alamos is the cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse community where a lot of the women do very important things and nobody seems to have an issue or problem with it. I think it's just a great example of a place where we build confidence for ourselves and for the young kids that are coming in to pursue careers in science and technology. I think that that's a great role model system to have.


Q: In saying that, is there any other advice for girls you'd give in addition to what you mentioned?

I would actually say three different things that I've observed: The first thing is that I find girls get discouraged sometimes when they are looking into a field where they don't see very many other girls, a field that is conventionally not pursued by women, and feel that they are different. And the first thing that I want to tell all girls is that it's OK to be different. In fact, it's cool to be different. If you look back in history at the people that we remember, whether that's men or women, it's always the people that are different that are remembered. There's only so far you can go by being a conformist, so it's OK if you're different. You just have to be strong and you have to say, "This is who I am," and you need to be able to pursue your dreams.

Second, girls and women tend to shoulder the bulk of responsibility with relationships, domesticity and parenting — they have to realize that they don't have to give up their careers for that. There is a beautiful way to achieve healthy work-life balance, and each of us has to figure it out for ourselves. Its not going to be easy. There is no single formula that works for everyone. But it is possible and can be achieved, if you are truly passionate about making it happen.

The third thing, which directly follows the above, is don't hesitate to ask for help. People are always willing, but I find that people are more reluctant to ask. If you need something, if you need advice, if you're looking into fields that are different from what your family and friends are involved in, don't hesitate to ask for help, and you'll find that people are very ready to give. You just have to ask for it.


Q: Is there an idea you want to explore personally or in your field?

I'm a scientist — so everything is about new ideas and concepts. Everything is about curiosity. I tell my students all the time that a negative result sometimes is a really cool thing, because then we get to ask, "Why does this not work the way that we thought it would work?" and that might lead to something new. It's all about new ideas.

The dream that I've been pursuing over the last five years is to come up with a universal way to diagnose all infectious diseases, and the reason that I think it's possible is because our immune system does something very similar to that. If you have a way to diagnose infectious diseases without any prior knowledge of what it should be, then we are better prepared for outbreaks, for all kinds of diseases that people come in with in the clinics. You can treat them more efficiently. You can treat them with the right drugs in a timely manner. You can save lives. The new idea is how to diagnose the flu and strep throat and the stomach bug with a common diagnostic platform? How do we design a one-size-fits-all way of being able to diagnose diseases. That's been the new idea that we've been chasing, and I think we're doing pretty good with addressing it.


Q: Is there anything you want to change in your field?

That's a very difficult question, and a very broad question, because you could interpret that as, is there something we could do better with how we do science? Is there something I could do better about how I do my science in the laboratory? Is there something that I would have done differently about the way that I approached my career? And the answer to all of those things is yes.

But if you ask me if I have any regrets, then the answer to that is no.

I think that the same thing that I told you about the negative result applies to all of these things, because it's just a learning experience. And every time I see something that I could have done differently, I try to learn from it and do it differently the next time. And that's true for our team too. Everyone that pursues a Ph.D. in science can appreciate this because if all of our results that went into our Ph.D. thesis worked the first time we did them, we'd be done with our Ph.D. in six months. The fact that it takes about five years for each of us to complete that thesis is because there's a lot of things that don't work, or a lot of things that have to be re-thought, a lot of things that have to be revisited. I think that's more of a generic answer to your question. But really the answer to your question is yes, there are things we would do differently, and you do your best to try to do them differently, and where they cannot be done differently you at least try to address that and call that to the attention of people that could do something about it without hesitation, without fear, and without having to worry what consequences that might have. I think we owe each other that much, to call that to the attention of people that could so something about it.

Video by Los Alamos National Laboratory

Dr. Harshini Mukundan is a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from The University of Delhi, India, in Microbiology and a Master's degree in science at Barkatullah University, India, in Microbiology. She then came to the U.S., where she did her PhD. and post-doc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of New Mexico. In 2006, after a two-year experience in industry, she joined LANL with a prestigious NIH post-doctoral Fellowship to develop diagnostic assays for tuberculosis. Since then, she has led and participated in projects aimed at developing rapid detection and diagnostics assays for breast cancer, influenza, toxic panels, and others. In addition to her research, she excels in scientific and community outreach activities and mentoring and has received numerous awards and honors. Dr. Mukundan enjoys mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows, and watching a new era of rising inspired scientists.

Words: Dr. Harshini Mukundan