Harshini Mukundan leads the Los Alamos National Laboratory Chemistry for Biomedical Applications team and is the deputy group leader for the Physical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy Group. Photo Courtesy LANL
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Harshini Mukundan says it’s always difficult to speak about yourself positively, without trying to sound a little boastful.
“I always find that women struggle with it a lot more than men do, and maybe it’s something we all need to learn to do effectively so that we can communicate what we’ve been able to accomplish?” she told the virtual fall meeting of the American Association of University Women in Los Alamos.
AAUW is a non-profit organization founded in 1881 that advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education and research. Mukundan was selected last year as one of 125 American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN Ambassadors to help further women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers.
Born and raised in India, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, Mukundan was always very curious and had interest in lots of different things.
“I had no real clue what I wanted to be in life, or what I would end up doing for the longest time. “As an undergraduate, it was quite by chance that I chose to study microbiology at Delhi University, and it completely fascinated me,” she said.
Studying science and having the opportunity to do some hands on research was really exciting to her.
“There are no scientists in my family. There was actually nobody with a science degree in my immediate family when I started pursuing my education in microbiology. We have had bankers, some teachers, dancers, economists, businessmen, but no scientists. So this was a new journey for all of us,” she said.
In order to pursue a career in science, it is almost a requisite to pursue advanced education. So Mukundan chose to pursue a Master’s degree in microbiology.
“I was the first person in my immediate family to have a master’s degree and in science, the first person to have a master’s degree in any subject. I didn’t do this on purpose – but I was fortunate enough to enroll at a university where I had the opportunity to do a research-based project – a thesis-based education. I got the opportunity to pursue my research at the National Institutes of Immunology and I completely fell in love with research and pursuing my scientific curiosity,” she said.
Up to that point, Mukundan had been considering a variety of career options – becoming a teacher, even a dancer, or pursuing drama, doing some writing, or perhaps going into management.
“I had no clue what I wanted to do, and I was so very confused,” she said.
Mukundan came to the United States, and pursued her PhD at the University of New Mexico, which she says “was a terrific experience”. After a brief stint in a start-up biotechnology company, she decided it was not for her.
“I loved the experience but I wanted to pursue my curiosity – so I applied for post-doctoral fellowship at Los Alamos and got it,” Mukundan said.
She noted that at every stage on her path, there was no certainty, no clear path to be seen. There were choices to be made, mistakes that were made and rectified.
“There are some things maybe that I wish that I had done differently, but that’s going to be there for everybody in terms of what we choose to do,” she said.
Mukundan was converted to a staff scientist at LANL in 2009 and has been there ever since. She leads the Chemistry for Biomedical Applications team and is the deputy group leader for the Physical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy Group.
“My group does a variety of amazing things and they’re actually unified only in one aspect – that is that we use spectroscopy to answer a variety of pressing problems. It is actually quite fascinating how dispersed our research is and it’s an amazing opportunity to learn something new every day. For instance, one of the teams in my group – lead by Dr. Sam Clegg- is (in part) responsible for engineering Chem Cam which is currently on a Curiosity Mars rover, and SuperCam that was launched recently and is going to reach Mars in 2021,” she said. “Our group uses spectroscopy to explore a variety of challenges – explosives, nanoparticles, energy, remote sensing and many others. My team – that’s the chemistry for biomedical applications team – specifically focuses on looking at biological challenges using spectroscopic tools.”
Mukundan said the goal the team has been championing for more than a decade now is very dear to her heart. It actually started during her high school days when she became very interested in global health – not with the intention of becoming a scientist, but essentially as a challenge. It was then, that via a class called Social Useful Productive Work, she visited the local health center and was introduced to tuberculosis control programs within her community.
“Tuberculosis is actually a major disease that affects a third of the world and a third of the world carries the bug at any given time although maybe 10 percent of us will get sick with it during our lifetime,” she said. “I always say that long after humans are gone from this planet, if we take a sneak peak back, there are probably two things that we will find – cockroaches and tuberculosis. They’re not going to go anywhere!”
Mukundan noted that the treatment for TB was already extensive – six months – with a possibility of relapse. The increase in HIV prevalence globally resulted in the resurgence in TB. In fact, TB is the main cause of death in individuals with HIV today. In this deadly combination, the world also saw an increase in drug- resistant forms of the disease- so it was classified by the WHO as a reemerging scourge in 2006.
“Despite being one of the oldest diseases known to man, there are no ideal diagnostics for TB, and the situation is especially dire in pediatric TB,” Mukundan said.
She received a grant from the National Institute of Health for a postdoctoral project at LANL to try to develop diagnostics for TB.
“We continue to do that today, but it has actually ballooned out into quite an array of different diagnostics for different things – bacteria, viruses including COVID-19 and a lot of different threats that the world faces today,” she said.
She explained that the diagnosis of what disease a person has is biased by some sort of prior knowledge or anticipation of what is going on. For instance, during flu season, people are generally assumed to have influenza if they have a cough or are sneezing.
“It’s actually directed by some sort of knowledge and anticipation of what that person likely has. So we go into it pre-informed – with a bias- with some sort of understanding that that’s probably what they have, so let’s just test for it. So, when something new hits us – like COVID-19 – we are really not prepared for it! The goal of our work is actually to develop what I call agnostic diagnostics – diagnostics that can be used without any sort of prior knowledge of what the individual has, and can provide situational awareness even in the case of a new emerging infection that we are seeing for the very first time,” Mukundan said. “The question there is how do you develop something like that?”
She explained that her inspiration always lies in nature which has solutions to the most complex problems.
“Nature has all the answers. We just have to look or ask and our own immune system has some of the answers as to how we might solve a problem like this. Every time we get sick with a particular bug, whether it is bacterial or viral, natural or engineered, our body begins to recognize it, and that’s why we develop an immune response to it right away. That’s what causes us to cough or sneeze, or develop a fever, or all of the symptoms – because our immune system is recognizing and fighting against this bug that’s invading our body,” she said.
She explained that the immune system does this by recognizing bits and pieces of the bugs that are highly conserved in evolution and are present in all the pathogens irrespective of what they may be.
“What we are trying to do is develop a universal diagnostic strategy that is based on this innate immune recognition, so that we can have an agnostic catch-all diagnostic that can be applied for all pathogens. We started off with bacteria and that led to a universal bacterial sensor concept which won an R&D 100 award in 2018. Since then, we been working on viruses and toxins in addition to bacteria. That in a nutshell is 13 years of what my team has been working on at the Lab. We’ve also been working on COVID-19 and trying to develop the diagnostics to some extent as well. This work is being led by Jessica Sutherland, a scientist on my team,” Mukundan said. “The part of this job that brings the most joy is mentoring the next generation of scientists and students”.
While getting to this point of her life in science and research, Mukundan says there are a lot of people who have asked her if she is sure she can manage a career along with a family life.
“They ask you how you are going to take care of your kids. A couple of people even told me when I was going for my PhD that it’s going to be very hard to find you a husband if you study more,” Mukundan said.
She said she decided that outreach was going to be a very important part of what she does – telling people that they can do whatever they want to do.
“You have to be true to yourself. The world is always going to say something if you do something this way and something else to say if you do it that way, but if you are authentic and true to yourself, I think it’s going to be fine,” she said.
“Many little kids have asked me if girls can do things like this or that, which is very sad in this day and age. It still is a common thing for people to ask you,” she said.
This is what has prompted her to be very active in outreach programs. She is on the board of the Bradbury Science Museum, works with AAAS outreach programs, and local science fairs. It is in this capacity that she was selected as an AAAS IF/THEN ambassador and works to spread the word on the value that science adds to everyday life, which she says “is easily forgotten”.
“The reason that we are still able to stay in touch and communicate today is because of science. Every little thing has some impact, some influence of science in it. So, I’ve been talking to children about that, trying to inspire a sense of fascination, a curiosity – that science brings to our lives,” Mukundan said. “Data suggests that at age 5, if you haven’t convinced a girl child, you’ve pretty much lost them. At age two or three, they think they can do everything on par with boys, but that actually starts changing as early as age 5.”
Harshini says she feels like she has known her husband, Mukund Mukundan all her life. They have been married for over two decades and the balance they bring to each other she says is an important reason why she can “have it all”. They have two children, a son who is a freshman at the University of California-San Diego, and a daughter in middle school. In her spare time, Harshi enjoys dancing, hiking, traveling and reading.
“Having hobbies, and spending time with friends and family is an integral part of being happy – at least for me,” she says.