Karmella Haynes, Ph.D. is making waves in biological engineering by using a cutting-edge research approach called synthetic biology to break down barriers to understanding how human chromosomes work. She is currently a Principle Investigator (PI) who is leading her own research team at a tissue culture and DNA engineering laboratory that she launched at Arizona State University in 2011.
Before becoming an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at ASU, Dr. Haynes earned her Bachelor's degree in Biology at Florida A&M University and visited MIT during the summer to learn Drosophila (fruit fly) genetics and DNA engineering techniques from Dr. Mary-Lou Pardue. She returned to her hometown, St. Louis, MO, and earned her Ph.D. studying Drosophila epigenetics, chromsome structure, and function at Washington University in the lab of Dr. Sarah Elgin.
She became inspired to merge traditional epigenetics research with the emerging field of synthetic biology as a postdoctoral fellow, first at Davidson College in the synthetic biology lab of Dr. Malcolm Campbell, and then at Harvard Medical School in the systems biology lab of Dr. Pamela Silver. Today, her research aims to identify how the intrinsic properties of chromatin, the DNA-protein structure that packages human genes, can be used to understand and control cancer and cell development.
Dr. Haynes' research has been recognized bay many honors including “Publication of the Year” in 2008 by the Journal of Biological Engineering for her work on bacterial DNA-based computing, an Early Stage Investigator grant from the Arizona Department of Health, an NIH Young Faculty grant (K01), and being named a "Scientist to Watch" by The Scientist Magazine in 2013. She also is a two-time featured guest on PRI’s Science Friday.
Today, Dr. Haynes serves leadership roles in major national and international synthetic biology organizations. She is currently a Councilor of the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC), and Advisor and Judge Emeritus for the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition.
With groups creating programs to encourage females to consider STEM, what is the biggest barrier to entry that is still prevalent today?
Disruption. It can be difficult for members who identify with the dominant group to offer opportunities to others that might make themselves less powerful.
What or who inspires you?
In general, I am inspired by inventors that have simple, and sometimes unimpressive "common-sense" ideas that make big impacts. These thinkers have the amazing ability to remove themselves from the powerful gravity of group-think, reach a state of lucidness, and find a great idea for a research project or technology. These thinkers also understand that "technology" can mean a hammer and nail although the word typically invokes images of surgical robots and self-driving cars.
What is your proudest moment/accomplishment?
I have two. First, as soon as I arrived at MIT to begin my first undergraduate summer research internship, I went to the bookstore and bought my dad an MIT sweater and a mug. My moment of pride was when he got those in the mail. He had dreamed of going to MIT as a high school student, but the social inequities of his time were too tough for even a brilliant student to overcome if you were black. Second, more recently my mom had finally shared her own "Hidden Figures" moment with me when I confided in her about a tough situation in my career. That moment was when she had finally received a promotion after being denied many times, although she was the best writer and budget analyst in her unit. She couldn't see the tears streaming down my face on the other side of the phone ... I guess she'll know after reading this article.