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Introducing Keerthi Krishnan

Keerthi KrishnanKeerthi Krishnan joined the BCMB department as an assistant professor in January 2017 after completing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a doctorate at the University of California, San Francisco, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research focuses on Rett syndrome, an incurable neurodevelopmental disorder that affects almost exclusively girls, as affected boys die shortly after birth.

How did you become interested in science and in your current research?

Growing up in southern India, I had wonderful biology teachers in my schools. I have vivid memories of working with plants and insects (dissecting a cockroach is something I will never forget) in our practical classes, which were lab classes where we performed small experiments and wrote down results and conclusions.

My love for brains came from reading Robin Cook medical mysteries – especially Coma and Brain, when I was 10 years old. The protagonist is usually a young woman in a male-dominated hospital somewhere in the United States. Those books dabbled in artificial intelligence, big data, medical insurance fraud, illegal surgeries, and were filled with drama and action!

After my graduate work on mechanisms of gene regulation in zebrafish at the University of California in San Francisco, I was looking for a postdoctoral scientist position studying neurological disorders because of my course work and possible clinical angle to basic research. I accepted a position investigating the role of GABA inhibition in Rett syndrome at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I had not heard of Rett syndrome before, and what I learned along the process was fascinating.

My current research involves understanding how the brain enables us to interact and learn from each other and our environment, using a process called experience-dependent plasticity. We think neurodevelopmental disorders arise when this process goes awry. We study one such disorder, Rett syndrome, using mice as our model system. We use integrated approaches to study genes, cells, neural circuits, and behavior to describe the plasticity phenomenon and understand the underlying mechanisms.

Do you have a lot of undergraduates in your lab? What kind of research are they involved in?

Yes. Undergraduates are involved in diverse projects and techniques including image analysis, quantifying protein markers in mice brains, and identifying ultrasonic vocalization structures of mice. Some students have been trained in working with mice and they perform behavioral assays, genotyping, and histology. As a team, we all work on understanding how different behaviors arise in neurodevelopmental disorders.

On teaching…

I developed a special topics course on mammalian neurodevelopment last spring. When I taught it last year, my target audience were juniors and seniors. This spring, I would like to attract freshmen and sophomores as well.

Learning and teaching new topics is fun! I would like students to rediscover the joy of learning, critically think about the information presented to them, question how we know that knowledge, and find ways to improve/test further. Though a basic understanding of biological concepts is helpful, wanting to learn and grit is more important.

Last spring, midway through the course after some early struggles, there were four “aha” moments in class when I could see the light bulb go on in some students. I have had “aha” moments before – but I have not seen it happen in others. That was special, and I will always cherish it.

Being at UT…

I love the students’ attitude, wonderful colleagues, accessibility and beauty of UT. Knoxville is a delightful place – I love the affordability (having previously lived in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago), beauty, and quirkiness of Knoxville. I have barely scratched the surface having moved less than two years ago.

If you could not be a scientist, what would you do?

As an alternate career, I would have tried to become a farm-to-table vegetarian chef.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I used to love dancing – I have dabbled in Bharathanatyam, a classical South Indian dance, Bollywood music, and salsa; and reading science fiction and novels. Now, I observe, interact, and enjoy my four-year-old daughter with my husband, while attempting to tackle our overgrown garden and home. I also love playing volleyball.

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