Turning bacteria into chemical factories


Kristala Jones Prather engineers cells to produce useful compounds such as drugs and biofuels.

Most academics follow a very traditional path to a job as a professor: earn a PhD, spend a few years as a postdoc, then find a tenure-track job as an assistant professor.

Kristala Jones Prather decided to take a detour from that path. After earning her PhD in chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, Prather chose to spend time outside of academia, working at Merck. Four years later, she launched her own lab at MIT, where she designs new ways to engineer bacteria to synthesize useful chemical compounds such as drugs and biofuels.

“It was not the easiest way to do it, but it was something I was really interested in doing. And it worked well for me,” says Prather, who is now the Theodore T. Miller Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

While working in industry, Prather learned a great deal about mentoring and managing people, she says. That experience also helped shape her current research.

“I don’t think we should always be driven by what industry says they want and need,” she says. However, “if the vast majority of your interactions are always with academics, and in academic settings, then there’s no way you’re getting anything other than an academic view of what’s going on. I decided that I wanted to at least give myself a chance to understand what happens in industry by going to work in industry.”

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