Kiran Musunuru won TIP’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2017 for his outstanding achievements in genetic research. After studying precalculus, number theory, and chemistry at TIP between 1988 and 1990, Musunuru earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a PhD in biomedical sciences from The Rockefeller University, an MD from Cornell University, and an MPH from The Johns Hopkins University.
Did you always want to have a career in genetics? How did you get into this field?
I think in the back of my mind I did all along—I remember reading about and being captivated by the notion of genetic engineering when I was a kid, when it was still science fiction—but I didn’t consciously realize that I wanted to pursue a career in genetics until I was training as a cardiologist, a heart doctor. At that time I was struggling with how one might figure out how to better prevent heart attacks—the leading cause of death in the world—and I realized that genetics would be the best way to get the answers.
What types of things do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Most of my time is spent in genetics research. It involves studying patients who have heart disease and trying to identify what genes are involved—it turns out there are many of them—and then studying the genes in the laboratory by manipulating them in cells in a dish and in animals such as mice and observing the consequences. It’s exciting because I never know exactly what’s going to turn up. Quite a lot of my time is spent traveling across the country and world to tell other scientists about my research at scientific conferences. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time teaching genetics and other types of science to college students and to medical students.
What do you enjoy most about genetics?
I like the fact that genetics offers the opportunity to help patients in ways that weren’t possible before. By studying lots of people around the world, we’ve been able to identify unusual people who have “good” mutations that actually protect them against heart disease. By studying those mutations, we can learn a lot about how to help other people avoid getting heart attacks. Recently I’ve been working with a “genome editing” technology called CRISPR, which actually has the potential to make changes in genes in patients. I very much like the idea that someday we might be able to take those “good” mutations we’ve discovered and put them into everybody else, so that we can protect the entire population and greatly reduce the number of people dying from heart attacks. It’d be a totally new type of medicine.
What is the most common misconception about genetics?
The idea that genetics is destiny. While that might be true of certain rare diseases, such as Huntington disease—if you have the mutation, you’ll get the disease—for more common, garden-variety diseases such as heart attacks, we know that even if you have “bad genetics” there are still a lot of good things you can do to reduce your risk of disease, such as exercise and healthy diet. Similarly, even if you have “good genes,” you still need to avoid bad things that will override the effects of the good genes, such as smoking and obesity. Finally, we’re slowly reaching the point where we might actually be able to change a patient’s genes—turn bad genes into good genes.
What skills are needed to be successful in this field?
Same as in any STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) profession—a strong knowledge base and sharp analytical skills. But that’s just the beginning. I think the most important characteristic is passion. If you don’t love what you’re doing so much that you’re thinking about it day and night, then it’s hard to succeed as a researcher. It requires that level of commitment. Perseverance is also critical—things often fail in the laboratory, so you have to go back and keep trying until things work. It may come as a surprise, but it actually turns out that you also need to be a good writer and communicator, so that you can tell other people about your work and convince them that it’s important. Finally, luck always plays a role!
What do you hope to accomplish in your career?
My goal, plain and simple (and probably unrealistically ambitious), is to dramatically reduce the number of people dying from heart attacks. If we can do that, then it’ll mean that life expectancy will become significantly longer.