Aruna Kilaru is a distinguished professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at East Tennessee State University. Aruna’s research focus is to understand “how plants perceive and respond to external environment” in unconventional model systems including moss and avocado. Aruna is part of several scientific communities including ASPB, NSF, and AAAS. In this interview, our aim is to gain deeper insights into Aruna’s background, as she leads us on a journey through her scientific experiences and shares valuable insights on how to steer and advance in our careers.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and who you are? What is your current position? What are your research interests?
I am a parent, mentor, teacher, and scientist, in that order! I am currently a distinguished professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. I am also a Faculty Fellow for Interdisciplinary Innovation in the Biosciences. In this new role, I am tasked with establishing a Center for Synthetic Biology and Bioengineering at East Tennessee State University.
I am a plant biologist/biochemist by training, and I have always been intrigued by how plants perceive and respond to external environment. I study mosses to understand their natural resilience to various stressors. In this process, we identified a novel lipid metabolic and signaling pathway that is akin to endocannabinoid signaling pathway in mammals. We are dissecting this pathway. Our lab is also focused on understanding how plants synthesize diverse types of storage lipids. We are using avocado as a model system to elucidate how the fleshy part of the fruit, but not the seed, is able to synthesize and store almost 70-80% oil by dry weight. As you may know, avocado oil is a heart-healthy oil and we are working toward identifying key regulators and enzymes that dictate its oil composition. Besides gaining a fundamental understanding of plant biology, our long-term goal is also to generate heart-healthy oil crops that are stress-tolerant.
Who is Aruna Kilaru outside of the job? What do you like to do in your “free” time?
I think, outside my job I am still a scientist; I am a rational, creative, and curious person, and this attitude spills into everything I do. I am disciplined and organized, but I have rarely separated my work from personal life. And I do whatever I can, whenever I can. So, work or not, I see myself as a mother, daughter, sister, friend, relative, mentor, and a responsible community member. I spend a lot of time, either on phone or in person, in each of these roles. I also serve in several professional societies, and they take up any free time. Nevertheless, when possible, I love to travel, especially with my daughter, and I enjoy photography and dance. At home, I enjoy cooking spicy Indian food and hosting get togethers, especially with my lab group. When I don’t want to do anything, I play with my cats or pour myself a glass of wine and check out Hallmark movies!
How did you become interested in plant science?
I grew up in India and I always wanted to become a doctor. I was quite passionate about serving the community and was deeply attracted to healthcare. But I did not get into medical school. So, instead I went on to pursue a master’s degree in biotechnology. It was my master’s thesis advisor Dr. Yogesh Jasrai at MS University, Baroda and the research that I did then that really got me interested in plant science. I studied the role of hormones in epiphyllous bud dormancy break in Kalanchoe Mortagei. It’s a bryophyllum member, commonly referred as “mother of hundreds” and it produces these tiny baby plants in its leaf notches. I was fascinated by that ability and to learn about hormones and totipotent nature of plants. I went on to work in the tissue culture industry and even started my own tissue culture company in my 20s. Those experiences led to realize my passion for fundamental science and research, and I came to the US to pursue a PhD at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Working with Dr. Karl Hasenstein on Witches’ broom disease of cacao has solidified my interest in plant biology and fed my passion for discovery.
How did you manage to keep this research niche (lipid metabolism) and create opportunities to pursue your research in this highly competitive field?
It was my postdoctoral work at the University of North Texas with Dr. Kent Chapman and at Michigan State with Dr. John Ohlrogge that introduced me to lipid biochemistry, specifically lipid signaling and synthesis. I continue to work in these areas. I was able to translate my postdoctoral training to carve out my own interests that are unique enough from what others are doing in these areas. Early on, I decided to work with non-model systems but choose those that are evolutionarily interesting and apt to address the questions that interested us. As such, we use mosses and avocados to study the mechanisms of lipid-mediated stress tolerance and storage oil biosynthesis. My research is funded by NSF and USDA, which allowed me to train graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows. Resources at ETSU are somewhat limited, but I collaborate as needed to keep pursuing our interests and make headway in our research.
What challenges did you experience in pursuing your scientific journey? And what advice do you have for future generations? Did these challenges ever make you consider leaving academia or research?
As a single woman and a brown immigrant, I have experienced misogyny and discrimination. Sometimes I tried to ignore it, but at times I had no choice but to take action. When you are in a foreign country, there are so many unknowns, uncertainties, and insecurities. You don’t know your rights and limits and you don’t know who is on your side. I think my courage and my ability to ask the right questions and the support system around me got me through that phase. My advice for future generations is, don’t be afraid to act or ask for help, when in doubt.
Also, for more than a decade, I have been dealing with major depressive disorder. It is especially challenging because it’s not something you can easily talk about to others due to the stigma around it or disbelief. In fact, many among my family and friends would not take me seriously and ask how someone so strong and accomplished like me can be depressed. I try to educate them, but it is a tiring process to justify to others. I learned to ask for help. I learned to say no. I learned to accept that sometimes I cannot do everything. And I also learned to advocate for and prioritize myself.
Financial challenges also often get glossed over in academia. Be it the stipend you receive as a graduate assistant or salary for postdoc or faculty members, we are grossly underpaid. A gap that is widened by the gender gap and structural discrimination within departments and institutions. I’ve been a single parent for the entirety of my career, and I often found it challenging to make ends meet. It allows me to appreciate that younger generations are fighting for better pay now. Like many people during COVID, I went through a straining healthcare financial crisis. The situation naturally pressured me to consider a career in the biotech industry or government. Luckily, my two years of work outside of ETSU, as a AAAS Fellow and NSF Program Officer, compensated me well enough to supplement my income. Now my new role, building the synthetic biology center, has rejuvenated my enthusiasm to continue in academia. I find that you can’t really monetize the gratification you get from teaching and mentoring in academia.
In addition to your university role, you were engaged as a AAAS fellow and NSF program officer while also being a part of WiPB within ASPB. Could you share how you became a part of these endeavors? What are your recommendations/suggestions for younger generations who want to participate in similar initiatives?
I was always interested in gaining diverse experiences and was curious of the AAAS Science, Technology and Policy Fellowship. I wanted to apply for that after graduate school, but it required US citizenship, which I got in 2020 and I immediately applied for the fellowship and got it. I served USDA foreign Agricultural Services as a Science advisor and International Trade Policy Officer. It was an awesome one-year experience in understanding how science can influence or shape policy and vice versa. With regards to NSF, I served as an NSF panel member and learned about the Rotating Program Officer role. Again, it was the curiosity to see the other side of grant funding that led me to apply for that position and it was an insightful experience. I would advise others to be on lookout for these unconventional opportunities and take the time to explore them. Even if one goes on to continue in academia, these experiences only enrich you to be a more successful person.
Serving ASPB or other organizations, I see all these as ways to pay back and pay it forward. ASPB has been instrumental in my career growth; I have been an ASPB member since I was in graduate school. Now I have been a member for almost 23 years. I met many of my good friends and collaborators for the first time at ASPB meetings. Serving the society gives you an opportunity to shape the society. If you ask for something, it happens eventually. When I was in graduate school there was no childcare support at society meetings, but now ASPB offers childcare support. I served in several roles within the ASPB as a section society, treasurer, vice chair, chair etc., and also with WiPB. I was recently asked to serve on the ASPB EDI Committee. To manage all these activities, you can advance your time management skills and ability to multitask. For example, you might allocate 2 hours of your time weekly to the society. If there is an interest, you can make it to happen. Give yourself the chance to try new roles and see if you are passionate about it. Seek all those opportunities that are there, even if they are out of your comfort zones.
How did you manage to be a scientist and a parent? You might sacrifice a lot. What is your advice for younger generations on a similar path?
I never really felt like I sacrificed anything for my daughter. She enriched my experience both as a scientist and a parent. Having her forced me to be more organized, become an excellent multitasker, and also a storyteller. I was really lucky to be in the labs that I was in as a graduate student and postdoc because my advisors and peers were very supportive of my needs and my daughter’s schedule and activities, and they have become my family. I also have lot of family members and friends in the US who were of great help, especially in taking care of my daughter when I was traveling for conferences or some other training work. And it didn’t take long before she, too, was a regular on the conference circuit! It literally took a village to raise a child and I did not do it alone. All of the hard work was easily worth it when she was able to pursue her education at the University of Chicago and is now also working in the sciences despite trying to “escape” the lab.
My advice for the students is to find the right lab that is supportive of parental needs. Do not hesitate when joining a lab to ask the advisor what kind of parental support they provide and environment they foster in the lab. Don’t be afraid to build your family while you are also building your career; you can do both. It might take a bit of planning and organization, but it is totally doable. Don’t put off your personal goals for the sake of career goals or vice versa.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
I think I have already spilled my entire life story here! I would just like to say, be bold and don’t be afraid to ask for help or the right questions. Be an advocate for yourself and others. And try out things out of your comfort zones. Be a responsible member of society. This can mean speaking up when needed, so don’t hesitate to question the norm. Collaborate in both personal and scientific life and you can accomplish more. And have fun…I mean really have fun. Enjoy what you do!