CAFE SCIENTIFIQUE News:
November’s Cafe Scientifique features Dr. Harshini Mukundan from Los Alamos National Laboratory who is speaking on “Attack of the Super-bugs … The global threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The event is for all area teens and includes food and fun beginning at 6:30 p.m., Thursday at the Los Alamos Research Park.
About Harshini Mukundan
I am a scientist and team leader at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the development of diagnostic and surveillance strategies for emerging infectious diseases and drug-resistant organisms. Every small incident in your life leaves its mark on you, and that mark influences your decisions in every phase of life. Growing up in a developing country ravaged by disease has clearly left a mark on me, as is evident from my chosen vocation.
I was born in Chennai, a busy city in Southern India, to a moderately affluent family with good access to medical care. Despite that, I suffered from mumps as a child, and knew children that suffered from other infectious diseases that could have easily been prevented by vaccination. Affixed in my memory is the image of our gardener, coughing persistently as he worked. I did not know then that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that would claim his life a decade later.
I also remember abuse of antibiotics, without prescription control within the community, one of the major reasons for the upsurge in drug-resistant organisms today. I have seen this abuse continue in many forms throughout the world, and am increasingly alarmed at increased rate of evolution of anti-microbial resistance today. Fighting antimicrobial drug resistance both in the laboratory and at the community level is one of the driving forces of my life today.
As a child I was interested in the performing arts (still am): dancing and drama were attractive options. But when I did very well in 10th grade, my family and friends encouraged (forced?) me to pursue an undergraduate degree in science. I enrolled as an undergraduate in microbiology at the University of Delhi in 1992, (yes, I am that old) and found myself enjoying it. My education was primarily theoretical, with some controlled laboratory work, but no research experience whatsoever. I enjoyed what I learned, but was not passionate about the science.
After my undergraduate degree, I still wavered between science and the performing arts and decided to pursue a master’s degree in microbiology (while performing at drama clubs and learning Indian dance). My masters program changed my outlook on science. I was fortunate enough to do my dissertation work at the very reputable National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi, India. Working in a research institution on real world problems was challenging, inspiring, and exciting. I enjoyed laboratory work and practically lived in the lab during that time, resulting in a highly appreciated masters thesis project.
At this juncture in my life, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in Biomedical Sciences. I came to the University of New Mexico in 1998, to pursue my Ph. D in Biomedical sciences. Studying in the United States was a completely new experience. I enjoyed the open and questioning culture, the casual approach to teaching and the helpful nature of my professors and teachers. My graduate work was entirely different from what I had done so far and my first introduction to human physiology. My project characterized the molecular mechanisms of gender differences in the manifestation of hypertension. Five publications and a challenging defense later, I had a Ph. D in Biomedical Sciences.
I then joined QTL Biosystems Ltd in Santa Fe as a staff scientist in 2003. For two years, I worked on developing hand-held sensors for detection of biowarfare agents. It was an amazing experience, translating the lessons learnt in school to actual applied products. But in two years, I realized that I needed the freedom to cultivate my scientific curiosity, to ask new questions and explore the unknown or unusual. This freedom is not easily obtained in an industry environment. So, I decided to join the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow in 2006. My childhood experiences motivated me to obtain a NIH post-doctoral fellowship to study tuberculosis and develop methods for its effective diagnosis.
Since then, I have been working on the development of assays for the diagnosis of tuberculosis, traveling to endemic populations, meeting and working with people in the field. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy my work and the challenges it presents. Pursuing unusual findings and atypical results have resulted in new approaches that may allow for the detection of biomarkers associated with bacterial diseases directly in the infected patients, and we are currently working on the clinical evaluation of these assays in human trials. Traveling to high disease burden populations in many areas of the world has been an eye-opening experience, teaching me how fortunate we are to live in a developed economy such as the United States.
I enjoy mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows, and watching a new era of inspired scientists rise. My ultimate goal is to develop better diagnostics for infectious disease, especially ones that have developed resistance to antibiotics, and to develop a global awareness for increasing drug-resistance. It is likely that we may be in the pre-antibiotic era within the next century if rapid and strong efforts are not undertaken to curb the global abuse of antimicrobial agents, and promoting this awareness to the best extent that I can remains my goal. Well, if you aim for the stars, you may reach the moon.
I still dance and perform every year and really enjoy it. I have been married for 17 years now and balancing my personal life (with two adorable children) and my career is one of the greatest challenges that I personally face!