Women of Wednesday: Prathima Radhakrishnan on the Beauty of Science and the Threat to Its Future

WOMEN OF WEDNESDAY is a micro-interview series featuring women of color in various industries and walks of life, focused on highlighting their pursuits and making it easy for readers to support their endeavors. If you would like to be featured, please submit your answers to the below five questions here.

Prathima Radhakrishnan, Writer and Scientist

1. Tell us about the work you’re doing and why it’s important.

I am a biophysics PhD student working in the laboratory of Julie Theriot at Stanford University. My research involves a fascinating bacterium named Listeria monocytogenes, which invades human cells and co-opts certain features of the host to propel itself within the cell. As a result of its motion, Listeria monocytogenes can strike the host cell boundary with so much force that it gets taken up by its neighbor. In this way, Listeria monocytogenes can travel through a layer of cells (like those of your gut or the cells lining your veins) without being exposed to antibodies in the blood that can kill it and can even cross the blood-brain barrier to cause meningitis. My project involves studying how host cells facilitate the spread of Listeria monocytogenes from one cell to another and uncovering the mechanism of this cell to cell spread.

As Listeria monocytogenes is a dangerous bacterium found on food (it can even stay alive inside the refrigerator), learning more about the way in which it survives in the human body could help us better understand how to quell the infection. Moreover, the reward of doing science is often just the ability to discover something totally new, to see something that has never been seen before, and to add to our understanding of how the world functions. Most biology is also beautiful to observe. Under a microscope, my moving bacteria are enchanting to watch: they zip around the cell with tails like shooting stars.

In addition to being a scientist, I am a writer, currently working on a science fiction fantasy novel and was an editorial assistant at Serendipity Literary Agency. I also love to sing.

2. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing the work that’s important to you?

The process of conducting research is challenging in itself, as it can be difficult to study biological objects like cells and proteins that often don’t behave as you would expect them to. A significant amount of trial and error along with cleverness is often required to understand how to conduct an experiment to obtain accurate and consistent results. Even so, the results obtained might be entirely different from what you would expect. Additionally, nature is complicated and bizarre, so the most reasonable explanation for a phenomenon might not be correct. Therefore, another challenge of doing research lies in correctly interpreting the results of experiments and keeping your mind open to accept solutions that don’t seem intuitive. Overall, as a scientist, I’ve had to learn to be persistent and optimistic and to find ways to distract myself from becoming disheartened. However, I’ve had more wonderful times than hard times in the lab and the feeling that comes with finally perfecting a certain procedure or solving an interesting puzzle is always special.

3. What do you need in order to continue your work in the way you envision?

Currently, I don’t need much more to continue my work in the way that I envision — I am conducting research in an extraordinary, supportive laboratory. However, I do worry about the future of basic research, due to recent political events that will likely lead to a reduction of government funding for the sciences. As conducting research requires expensive equipment and much expertise, this can be a real threat to how much progress we can make in understanding our world. Moreover, I am also worried about the way science is perceived by non-scientists, as a field that is overly complex and superfluous, or dry and boring, when it is exactly the opposite — research is a creative endeavor that can produce results that are totally unexpected and new. Even more worrying is the notion that scientists are often untrustworthy or that scientific results are routinely manipulated and skewed to support certain political ends or profit a select few. Wider understanding of how science is conducted and how exciting it can be to put together a scientific story could bolster support for science and also lead to a more diverse community of scientists, including a larger number of female scientists.

4. Where and how can we support you to make #3 happen?

Pay attention to scientific discoveries and innovations when you can, try to understand the process that produced scientific data before searching for reasons to distrust it, and ask questions when scientists are not doing a great job of clearly communicating their work.

5. What is your favorite quote?

I go through so many favorite quotes but of late, I’ve been thinking about venturing into bold, new territory and how frightening it can feel to face an empty page, conduct an experiment for the first time or propose a new idea. Fortunately, even though the details of my life vary from day to day, I always seem to feel at home with the person that I am and the place that I’m in. This is not the case for my parents and many others like them, who left their home and immigrated to the United States, not knowing what to expect or whether they’d be welcome. In that spirit, I’d like to put forth this quote from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies:

“Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by every mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”