During her stint in the Bioprocess Research and Development department at Merck, Kristala Jones Prather developed ways to produce drugs using biological processes rather than chemical reactions. By overexpressing a few key genes or inserting genes from a separate organism into a cell, she converted common bugs such as the bacterium Escherichia coli into chemical factories.
Her experience in industry taught Prather a valuable lesson. The technologies that get implemented, she learned, are the ones that have the potential to make a real difference. "You have to convince the scientists and engineers that what you're implementing is going to allow them to do something that they couldn't do before," she says.
The situation is much the same for scientists, as Prather's story shows: The ones who seem likely to make a real difference are the ones who get the opportunities. In 2004, Prather left Merck for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she became an assistant professor of chemical engineering. Today, she is working to devise ever-more-elaborate microbial chemical factories. Prather's new systems move far beyond producing a single protein in a cell. By integrating genes from different species into a microbe, she is finding ways to fabricate molecules and compounds that current chemistry techniques either can't do or don't do very well. Properly harnessed, these microbes could really make a difference by creating new materials for use in drugs and other products and helping industry cut costs.
Prather says that as one of two minority female faculty members in her department, she is sought out by students from underrepresented groups. She frequently participates in programs aimed at reaching these students. Indeed, the opportunity to reach out to women and minority students--and teach them--was among the factors that drew her back to academia. "I really felt like, if it was just about research, I could do that at other places. But teaching students, and reaching out to women and minority students, is important to me, because I know that there is this pipeline problem for women and minorities, particularly in science and engineering."
Here, "pipeline problem" refers to the current underrepresentation of women and minorities. In recent decades, significant gains have been made in the numbers of women and minorities who enter college as science and engineering majors and earn bachelor's degrees. But further along the career path, the numbers look worse. A 2007 survey  of the top 100 departments in 15 disciplines of science and engineering showed that, after a long, slow climb, the percentage of women reached 17.9% in the top 50 departments. Yet few departments have more than one underrepresented minority, says Donna Nelson, the chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman who collected the survey data.
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Prather says that in her field, women seem to be more common than in some other engineering disciplines, but the numbers are still small. "My department is at 10%, and we're phenomenal," she says.
Prather says she is fortunate in that no one has ever tried to use her race or gender to limit her ambitions. "I've had very good support networks all along the way. So I've never felt isolated," she says. "Still, there is work to be done in closing the achievement gaps and in terms of really helping some students."
In retrospect, Prather views her 4-year venture into industry as a calculated risk, because "I was ultimately interested in an academic career," she says. "Intellectually, there were a number of different labs I would have loved to have gone to to learn different techniques. But I was interested in the experience and the bigger questions about engineering as a discipline as opposed to something specific about my particular niche." She wanted to get at "this whole idea of how institutions adopt new technologies. What is it that drives people to try something new, given the time lost with adopting new equipment and new methodologies?"
"I did it for a number of reasons. But the most obvious one was, I really felt that what makes an engineer an engineer, as opposed to a scientist, is a focus on what is applied," she says. "Engineering is fundamentally about technology and the implementation of technology into the marketplace. I felt a gap in terms of really understanding how institutions adopt new technologies."
Prather found her advisers, inside and outside of her department, supportive of the idea of her going directly into industry. Harvey Blanch, who served as department head of the University of California, Berkeley's, Department of Chemical Engineering at the time, says he encouraged her to find a position in the biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry to get a broader range of experience than she would be likely to get in a postdoc. "Because engineering is a professional degree, with the majority of undergraduates going to work in industry, having faculty with industrial experience is very valuable," he says.
In addition, Blanch adds, industrial experience can be useful in developing an academic research program in an applied field. "The relevance of the research to industrial objectives is particularly important," he says.
In 2000, Prather accepted a position with Merck. She started as a senior research biochemical engineer and was promoted to research fellow in 2003. She managed a group of three working on biocatalysis, DNA vaccines, and therapeutic proteins.
At Merck, she learned how new technologies are adopted and implemented in industry and the marketplace and what drives those kinds of changes--engineering's big questions. "Most companies don't want to spend a bunch of money just because something is shiny and new. It has to actually make a difference," she says. "That was useful for me to learn and to understand in terms of what my own interests were."
Despite the advantages of her industrial experience, the move back to academia did not come easily. "I wouldn't do it any other way, but it is not the easiest way to enter academia. In fact, it's probably the most difficult way to do it," she says.
"When I entered Merck, I had signed a confidentiality agreement. When I walked out, I left with nothing but handshakes and pats on the back and good wishes," she says. "I really enjoyed my time at Merck, but when I came to MIT, I had an empty lab and nothing but some ideas jotted down in a notebook."
While setting up her laboratory in 2004, Prather ran across a report published by the U.S. Department of Energy that identified a dozen value-added chemicals that could be made from biomass. "So we picked out a couple of chemicals from that list and said, 'Let's go see if you can figure out how to make these things biologically.' " She is making up for lost time: Recently, her team combined genes from three organisms into a single microbe to produce glucaric acid, a compound derived from glucose that previously could only be synthesized chemically. In the past year, her lab has published nine research papers.
Prather says her training at Merck has helped her cope with the many responsibilities of a college professor. "I learned how to manage people in industry in a way that you wouldn't learn how to do in academia. I got classes in management training, for example, which have come in very handy for conflict resolution in my lab," she says, laughing. "People management is a huge component of what you have to do as a faculty member. And management is something that most faculty have to pick up on the fly."
Teaching is another skill that can only be learned on the job, Prather says. As a graduate student, she taught two semesters. Later, she taught an undergraduate lab in biochemical engineering--voluntarily. Still, "I wasn't as prepared for what it really meant to start from scratch on a class and how much time it's going to take," she says.
Although Prather says she knew a job in academia would be a lot of work, she did not always have an appreciation for how many different "kinds of work" it can be: "The reality is, there is no one career path that fully prepares you for everything that you have to do in order to move into a tenure-track position and have a reasonable chance of success."
Susan Gaidos is a freelance writer based near Portland, Maine.