Meet a Whitehead Alumna: Kara McKinley
Kara McKinley is an assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard University who studies the regenerative properties of the uterus. She completed her doctoral research in Whitehead Institute Member Iain Cheeseman’s lab in 2016. Kara started her own lab in 2021 and also created Leading Edge, an initiative intended to improve the gender diversity of life sciences faculty in the U.S. Every year Leading Edge elects a group of fellows from women and gender-diverse postdocs, and provides them with community, mentorship, career development training, and a platform to present their work and advertise themselves to faculty search committees at an annual symposium. We sat down with Kara to learn more about her and these experiences.
As a graduate student, how did you decide to join Iain’s lab at Whitehead Institute?
I came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reasonably convinced that I was going to continue to do what I had done as an undergraduate, which was to study protein folding. However, the MIT biology program has a series during January where all of the faculty come and talk to the students. During that, I saw Iain talk about his work for the first time and it was just a world I hadn't experienced before, the world of cell biology. His lab studies how the kinetochore, this amazing machine that’s involved in cell division, is built and how it works to drive chromosome segregation. I really loved the way that the lab thought about problems. They used so many different approaches to solve problems precisely. That experience was the start of a very long love of one approach, microscopy, that's informed all of the work I’ve done since. I also really liked Iain as a person!
I will say that when I talked to Iain about joining the lab, I originally planned to work on this idea called the immortal strand hypothesis that relates to chromosome segregation and stem cells. I loved the lab, but I also loved that project–and that project failed within my first few months in the lab. I'm glad I ended up in a place where I had the right mentorship and support to reroute on to more productive directions.
What did you learn from your time at Whitehead Institute that has informed your approach to running your own lab?
I model a lot of my mentorship off of the mentorship I received from Iain. We’re not the same, obviously, and I have also incorporated things I learned from my postdoc mentors. One of the most important things I learned from Iain was about being generous with your mentorship and sponsorship. He sat in the lab, not his office, and so we always saw how many people came to talk to Iain about job advice or things that were going on in their lab and things like that. I still talk to him a lot and he provides a lot of input and insight into challenges I might be facing as a new PI. He’s a forever-mentor. It was important for me to see that model because it's something that I try to do as well, to be generous with the time I have for people.
One other thing that I want to say about Whitehead Institute is how awesome the support staff were. They were really integral to everything that we did. As I have worked at other places, I have really come to appreciate the way that Whitehead Institute fostered a sense of community including both the people at the bench and the people who make it possible for them to be at the bench.
What is the research focus of your lab?
My lab studies the uterus and our goal in doing so is to advance both reproductive health and also regenerative medicine. In general, we don't think of humans as being very good at regenerating. Most of the time, if you injure us, we scar; that relates to scarring of the skin but also scarring of the heart after a heart attack, scarring of the lungs after severe COVID-19, things like this. However, the uterus is a super regenerator because the lining of the uterus, which is called the endometrium, undergoes substantial degradation and shedding every month during menstruation. Every month it repairs in a scarless manner, in the end regenerating about 400 times over the reproductive lifespan. We think it's a unique system to understand and harness human regenerative capacity.
In addition, we think it's important to understand this from the perspective of addressing the really long standing unmet needs of very large proportions of the population who have various menstrual anomalies and other pathologies associated with defects in the endometrium. For example, estimates are that endometriosis occurs in about ten percent of all menstruators, and that may be an underestimate. Other things like fibroids cause heavy bleeding. We're interested in better understanding the process of menstruation so that we can better treat and manage these conditions that have really substantial impacts on quality of life.
One of the things you have prioritized in your career is sharing knowledge about how to succeed in science. Why is that important to you?
I believe very deeply in equalizing access to information about how to succeed in science. I think that a lot of the processes, rules, and especially loopholes that exist along an academic trajectory are passed down through informal networks. Those informal networks by default right now privilege over-represented scientists. It's basically the old boys club, right? This leads to what people call the “hidden curriculum,” this list of things that some people know are how things work, and yet there's a huge population of people who aren't in the in-crowd, who could succeed just as well if given access to that same information. The main thing that I believe I’ve learned in my time in science is that almost everything that we perceive as talent is actually trainable. If given the right resources, a lot more people could shine. That's ultimately what I'm aiming for.
The other thing is that sharing information is honestly really easy these days, with social media. I learned that when, during the early days of the pandemic, I was stuck in my apartment in my pajamas. I had just experienced going on the job market; I took my job February 24 and three weeks later, the city shut down. I decided to just write down everything I had learned while it was fresh. There's some amount of advice in there, but also just information about what to expect and how the process might shake out, which I think can be comforting to know in advance. Initially, I didn't share the document with a ton of people unless they asked me for advice, because some of it is pretty personal. There are parts in there about being asked illegal questions during the job interview and things like that. Then over time, I decided that I was just going to put it out there and let people have that information. It was really eye opening for me to learn how hungry people were for that. And I have to stress again that the barrier to sharing information is so low. That document can now propagate essentially without me. Since then, I’ve also co-written an article on how to start a lab. That is something else you get thrown into and everyone has to learn it for themselves, which seems like a waste of time to me.
The themes of hidden knowledge and the need for more knowledge sharing seem like they could also be important in menstrual research. Is that the case?
Absolutely! Of course we are very interested in understanding true endometrial pathologies, things like endometriosis, adenomyosis, fibroids, infertility, but I also don't think we have a great handle on what healthy means because these conversations are taboo. My lab is very inspired by Kate Clancy, a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has done a lot of work collecting information on people’s menstrual experiences, including recently around people's menstrual experiences being altered by COVID-19 vaccination. I think we have not been catching a lot of information about human variability in menstruation, and it will be really exciting to learn more about the biology that underlies that.
What’s the story behind the creation of the Leading Edge initiative and symposium?
Leading Edge seeks to combat the problem that there are very, very few departments at research institutes and universities in this country that have anything close to gender parity. Male faculty are heavily over-represented. When I was a student and a postdoc, I found that both frustrating and confusing, because I was surrounded by exceptional people who weren’t men. It’s something you perceive a lot as you progress through your career. You might look to people who share certain aspects of your identity for mentorship, which for me was women, and they just weren't there. I wanted to understand where they were, what was happening. One of the things that I learned was that at the time, only about a quarter of applicants for faculty positions were women. What was useful about learning that was that it took a really big problem, the under-representation of women and people with marginalized gender identities in academic research, and made it into something that felt tractable: getting more women and gender-diverse people into the applicant pool.
It’s relatively well known that people from under-represented groups may not feel that certain opportunities are for them and so may not apply—that’s certainly something I have experienced. So, we wanted to create a scenario where it was easier for individuals to get recruited into the applicant pool. Leading Edge has worked for that; the fellows do get a lot of contact from institutions running faculty searches, very much facilitated by this symposium that we run every year where they present their work in relatively short format. It gives people a chance to learn about their science and also learn about the individual. The fellows get a chance to stand out from a crowd of hundreds of faceless CVs and show how incredible they are. So that did work, but in my opinion that actually has ended up being probably the least important thing that Leading Edge does.
What are other important things that Leading Edge does?
One of the guiding principles of Leading Edge is that we can have an abundance mindset about success in academia, and that therefore, elevating one another can be part of how we all rise. It’s been great to see how the fellows help each other. One thing that happens before the symposium is that the fellows give practice talks to each other. That helps everyone give the most compelling talk possible, and it also creates this culture of trust, mutual respect, and feedback that ends up being a really important part of what happens for the rest of the year. In the end, I think the most important thing that the program does is give the individuals a community with whom they can ask questions and share information, including about hidden curriculum kinds of stuff. I also think it’s great when fellows see other fellows succeed, because that helps them realize that that's within their grasp also.
I have to say that the culture of Leading Edge has really been the legacy of the first cohort of fellows. That group of individuals built this community and made a space where people could bring their whole selves and share their experiences and learn from each other in a way that has been propagated onto subsequent cohorts. We have a very active Slack where people ask for feedback on various things, share job ads, share information about their grants, things like that. Also, two of the 2020 fellows run a program in the fall to basically help people workshop their presentations of their visions for their labs. As for me, it’s a big joy amplifier in my life to celebrate the successes of these fellows. There are now 136 people that I’m really rooting for, instead of just celebrating my own successes.
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