Tell us about your current career position
I am an associate professor (without tenure) of chemical engineering at MIT. I am an undergraduate alum of MIT, and I received my Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, also in chemical engineering. My path to an academic career was somewhat unusual. After finishing my doctoral degree, I decided to take a job in industry. I worked in Bioprocess Research & Development at Merck Research Labs from April 2000 to July 2004, and started working on the tenure track at MIT that fall. Now, I run a research group that currently consists of 12 graduate students and one visiting graduate student from the Insituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, Portugal.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
When I was a junior in high school, I decided it was time to prepare for college. At the time, I had taken the PSAT and had started to receive a good amount of literature from colleges and universities all across the country. I had World History right before lunch, and it was not unusual for me to stay after class and talk to my teacher, Mrs. Dianne Mears. One day, I told her all the college literature had me thinking about college, and we had a conversation that went something like this:
“Well,” Mrs. Mears asked, “what do you want to study?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“What classes do you like?”
“I like math, but I don’t want to be a mathematician – it just seems too abstract.”
“Then what else do you like.”
“I like science, too.”
“Great! If you like math and science, you should be an engineer.”
“Sounds good,” I said, without any real clue of what an engineer was.
“Now, what kind of science do you like?” she probed.
“I’m taking chemistry now and really enjoying that a lot.”
“Terrific! You’re going to be a chemical engineer, and if you’re going to be an engineer, you’re going to go to MIT,” she declared.
“Cool!” I replied. “What’s MIT?”
And that started my journey towards learning about a school that my grandmother called “MCI” for my first year. During my senior year in high school, after I had been admitted to MIT, I was introduced to a local businessman (and now dear friend) who had received his Ph.D. in chemistry 30 years earlier in 1960. He first introduced me to the field of biotechnology, through a publication of the American Chemical Society, which is what first sparked my interest in my current research field. He also gave me a book on polymer science, so when I went to MIT, I decided I would graduate, then go to graduate school to study either biotech or polymer science. A undergrad course or two in each area led me to narrow the field to biotech.
How did you first become interested in science?
I don’t think there was ever any particular moment that caused me to gain interest in science. I was always a tinkerer – the kid who had to set the VCR, program the satellite dish (when we lived beyond the reaches of cable in East Texas!), took apart the sink to retrieve lost jewelry, and fixed the toilet with paper clips. I think a career in science and engineering was inevitable for me!
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
I think graduate school is largely about failing and regrouping. I always tell my students we call it research because you search…. and you search…. and you search… and you search, and if you’re observant and a bit fortunate you make progress. The key to moving past failures, whether they be in the lab or elsewhere, is to analyze them, understand why they happened – particularly, those aspects that were unavoidable – and then try again with added knowledge and experience. This was certainly my experience in graduate school.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
First, pursue excellence. Give your absolute best – no excuses – to your coursework. A solid foundation in the fundamentals of your discipline is critical to success in science. Second, surround yourself with mentors. They come in all shapes and sizes (including high school World History teachers!), and are essential for you to receive training in the intangible, “soft” skills of success in a scientific career. Third, build a network. Science is increasingly interdisciplinary, with the most interesting and impactful advances occurring at the interfaces. Build networks within and across disciplines so that you will be prepared to take advantage of an opportunity to chart a new scientific path when one is presented to you. Finally, have fun! Keep friends and family close and remember that balance is essential for keeping your career in the proper perspective.
What are your hobbies?
My kids! I have two daughters, ages 6 and 3, which leaves me little time for hobbies. However, before they arrived (and I became a tenure-track assistant professor), I enjoyed reading extensively as well as cooking. I also like to travel, though the opportunity to travel for fun doesn’t come along too often these days. When I was younger, I really enjoyed puzzles. My daughters seem to have picked this up, and my husband and I have started to go back to puzzles over Christmas break.
What was the last book you read?
“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. I highly recommend it.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
I have so many that I’m afraid to name them for fear of missing anyone. Though it may sound clichéd, I consider my mother to be heroic. My father died suddenly shortly before my second birthday, leaving my mother a widow with two kids at the age of 24. She never re-married, and now that I have kids of my own (both daughters, just like my mother, and with a spacing very close to my sister and me), I appreciate even more what raising us entailed. Her example gave me a sense of independence and determination that became foundational for everything that followed. I hope those I have not named know who they are, and what they have meant to me.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
I really enjoy the excitement of always being on the verge of something new. Our lab is limited by funding – and a desire not to grow too large, for fear of losing connection with my students – but not by ideas, which means there are always plans for what to do next if only resources (including time) were unlimited. That’s what makes it fun.
Dr. Kristala Jones Prather can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to read an article about Dr. Prather and her research on the MIT Spectrum.