Dr. Kristala Prather is a synthetic biologist in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT
In our conversation on April 26th, 2021, we talked about being selectively fearless, including Kris’s willingness as a teenager to pull apart the plumbing of her family home in Longview, Texas, and her influential teachers and family friends who encouraged her to go to MIT for engineering. Her studies as an MIT chemical engineering undergrad included some biology, even taking a new 8:30 AM biochemistry class that the Chemistry Department was offering, and coincided with the AIDS crisis and the associated power of biotechnology and DNA sequencing to address human health.
Her PhD at Berkeley with Jay Keasling was a deliberate turn towards biology and biological engineering. Her time there was a chance to work on biology at a molecular level and also to warm up after some very cold Boston winters. While in grad school she had an internship at DuPont, and later spent four years at Merck. Both experiences helped her appreciate the strengths of industry’s approaches to science, what drives companies to adopt new tech, and how the work differs from academia.
Kris returned to MIT to be a professor of Chemical Engineering, knowing that her chance to work with students would always be part of her experience in academia. She has been recognized as an extraordinary teacher there, and her lab has successfully engineered microbes to make industry-relevant small molecules.