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Yamuna Krishnan is Senior Assistant Professor at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, India. She already performed a remarkable career, is enthusiastic not only about bringing chemistry into biological systems as well as teaching students . She received her PhD in 2001 from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.
From 2002 to 2004, she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK, in the group of Shankar Balasubramanian. After this, she moved back to India to take up the position of Junior Assistant Professor at the National Center for Biological Sciences.
Tell us a bit about how yourself ?
Born to an architect father and literary mother, grandparents who were doctors and editors, Krishnan grew up in an environment of science and arts. As a teenager, she used to experiment at home. “It was mostly repeating things I had read in my textbooks. How a siphon works, how one can grow small sea creatures in brine, making soap from oil, making invisible ink; these things kept me busy,” she recalls.
After high school, Krishnan took up chemistry. “I understood the language of molecules and reactions as if I had known it all along,” she says.
How your career has developed?
In June 1994, i completed my BSc in chemistry from the Women’s Christian College, University of Madras. Then, I was accepted into the best PhD program for chemistry in the country at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, where the freedom my PhD supervisor gave me really allowed me to grow into chemistry in its broadest sense. In 2001, i won a fellowship to work in the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, UK, where i studied an unusual form of DNA—the four-stranded quadruplex DNA. As if this was not enough, I later found myself working at Cambridge University with Shankar Balasubramanian, a young and dynamic chemist, a deep thinker and excellent mentor. By just observing him I learnt a great deal in terms of how to identify and approach scientific problems.
In time i found myself gravitating towards biology.When I was applying for positions back in India, by sheer chance I visited the NCBS – the scientific atmosphere and the quality of the people there completely re-oriented my plans and I could not picture myself anywhere else. The environment of this biology-centred institute was what enabled me to take our chemistry into biological systems. “I chose to jump into the deep end, and position myself in a biology-centred institute. In 2005, I set up my own lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tifr, in Bangalore,” says Krishnan, adding that colleagues greatly helped her transition from chemistry to chemical biology.
So a series of fortunate accidents or opportunities, however you see it, is the way I would best describe how I got to where I am.
Krishnan heads a lab of 10-14 students working towards a PhD. Her own research is on DNA. “Short lengths of DNA behave as rigid rods on the nanoscale. By using molecular glue, one can fix these little rods to each other exactly where you choose. So, in essence, one can use DNA to build shapes, just the way one can use Lego building blocks to make a little car, or a house, or a see-saw,” explains Krishnan.
Most interesting project?
Krishnan is working on a plug-and-play DNA-sensor technology that researchers can use to study living cells. “These can be reporters for how cells react to various chemicals. So if one screens thousands of chemicals for their effect on diseased cells, these DNA devices might help identify potential drug molecules,” says Krishnan.
The skills for science?
“In terms of attitude, I would say you would need curiosity and passion, knowing how to work as a team, flexibility about the path to reach your goal, and belief in your abilities to realize it.”
“Competing with the best internationally despite the viscosity of the system. For instance, if I need a chemical in India that needs to come from abroad (most of the time, this is the case), if it arrives within a month we are lucky. If one is in Europe or the US, the same chemical would take one-seven days to reach you.”
What do you enjoy most about your career?
Working with people who share a youthful enthusiasm about science. Biologists are remarkable people, and I’m fortunate that I can interact with a wide selection of the best at NCBS. I enjoy exploring the breadth of biology that is still inaccessible due to lack of the appropriate chemistry to capture its workings. And of course, the joy of watching raw students slowly and surely turn into high quality scientists.
When did your interest in sciences begin?
I have been interested in science ever since I can remember. I used to grow sugar and salt crystals, dissect flowers and dead frogs (with kitchen knives!), repeat all the little experiments at home that we used to read about in school.
In short anything possible with the resources of Mum’s kitchen and Dad’s garden.
How did you decide to become a chemist?
My entry into chemistry was an accident. I wanted to do architecture, but ended up settling for chemistry as a compromise, since my marks in Math in a particular crucial exam were not enough for me to make it into the Architecture course. I am now very happy I did not do architecture!
What has been your biggest motivation?
My biggest motivation is to improve my understanding of the chemistry of nucleic acids within the cell and enjoying that journey with my students. I cherish working with such motivated and intelligent youngsters, and at the end of every day I can’t wait to get back to the lab again and enjoy growing together as we gain control of our scientific problem.
Do you think there are still differences between men and women in chemistry?
Were there ever any?!! In my mind, there are none. I know that my parents would not have raised me any differently had I been a boy, and maybe this is the reason I see and feel no differences between men and women in science.
Have you experienced any personal struggles typical for women in sciences?
Personal and professional struggles are part and parcel of everyone’s career and I too have undergone my fair share at every stage – but I have never considered that any of them was because I was a woman. We all go through struggles, whether we are men or women.
What advice would you give other women thinking of embarking on a scientific career?/What was the best advice you have ever been given?
If you don’t struggle for something, you will value it less when you get it. The harder the struggle, the sweeter the fruit. I believe that if you want something badly enough, you will find a way to make it happen. The words I always remember are those of a dear teacher, collaborator and friend Sandhya Visweswariah who said – work is a reward in itself – it helps me through good days and bad.
What do you do in your spare time?
I do a lot of sport. I go running, swimming, I travel, read books, watch movies, go to music concerts and spend time with my parents.
What would you like to be doing ten years from now?
Gosh, I can’t think that far ahead! Things change so fast in science! But five years from now I hope to revolutionize the way we visualize proteins inside living cells. And I hope to be working with students who are as great as those I’m working with now!