Kiana Aran, Ph.D., associate professor at the Keck Graduate Institute and Chief Scientific Officer at Cardea Bio, a San Diego-based diagnostics start-up, has won the 2021 Nature Research Award for Inspiring Women in Science in the Scientific Achievement category. The award provides the winner $40,000 and aims to celebrate the achievements of women in science and all those who work to support women to stay in STEM careers around the world.
Aran is best known for her research combining the power of biology with modern electronics. Her work has produced the world’s first CRISPR-powered transistor, or CRISPR-Chip, for amplification-free DNA detection. Aran’s landmark paper was a cover article in Nature Biomedical Engineering in June 2019. You can read about the launch and recent developments on the CRISPR-Chip here and here.
Aran will be interviewed by President and Co-Founder of LunaPBC, Dawn Barry, in a webinar on November 4 to answer questions about her scientific and personal journey. In addition, Aran will make an announcement at the end of the webinar on how she plans to spend the $40,000 prize from Nature. In the meantime, Fay Lin, senior editor of Clinical OMICs‘ sister publication GEN Biotechnology, sat down with Aran to discuss her award, her scientific journey and vision for empowering other women in STEM. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Fay Lin: Kiana, you’ve done some impressive work advancing the field of biosensing, including the development of the CRISPR-Chip. Can you tell us more about this technology and your research as a whole?
Kiana Aran: My background is in electrical engineering. I switched to biomedical engineering during my PhD, and then bioengineering in my postdoc, where I found myself combining all these different fields together to create novel solutions for diagnostics.
CRISPR is a technology created by nature over millions of years that can unzip the double-stranded DNA, search for its target sequence, and cut the DNA. It’s an amazing search engine! For years, when researchers wanted to detect a sequence, they would have to cut a piece of DNA, amplify it, label it, and do all sorts of sample prep, which required a lot of infrastructure and skilled personnel. I thought, why not use biology itself to do the work? Also, as an electrical engineer, I was fascinated by transistors.
A lot of my work was using 2D graphene-based transistors. Silicon, a major component of the semiconductor industry, had limitations when interacting with biology. It was not biocompatible and the signal would dissipate because it’s a 3D material. Graphene is provided to us by nature and it’s superfast and conducting. I thought, if I can combine CRISPR technology with these graphene-based transistors, then the possibilities are unlimited.
CRISPR-Chip was the first example of using biology as a technology element in my sensors. The first CRISPR-Chip was published on the cover of Nature Biomedical Engineering in June 2019. We watched as it detected its signal, searched through the genome and found its target.
Your career has touched upon both academia and industry. How do these two areas differ? How do they intersect?
Academic research is great. It gives you flexibility to work on your ideas. At the same time, I want to develop technologies, innovate, and turn research into product. One thing that was really demotivating for me in academic research was that I could work on a project for 2-3 years, publish it, and that would be the end. When you wake up in the morning, you want to feel like your work has an impact.
As my lab is so focused on developing things that can translate to a product, working with industry has been amazing for me because I see my product in the hands of people that can use it. Industry also considers paths of commercialization. Often, complex sensors and systems are published but it’s difficult to scale them up. For me, it’s developing simple, elegant, powerful technologies using nature, and scaling them up from inception.
In your opinion, what are the current challenges for women seeking a career in science, whether that’s academia or industry, and what advice do you have for them?
A lot of women in their early careers don’t get the recognition for their work needed to advance to leadership roles. If you look at universities, almost 60% of students at universities are women in all majors, but that percentages drops to less than 5% in leadership roles. What is lacking here? It’s not having enough women role models. I think society constantly focuses on limitations that women encounter instead of offering them resources that can help them get to those positions.
For me, the only way that you can really bridge this gap is to figure out a way to offer a solution. Let’s offer leadership classes. Let’s offer classes that teach women how to become an entrepreneur. Let’s recognize women who have been reaching success with all the obstacles and challenges, exactly what Nature did with this award.
What does it mean to you winning this award from Nature?
It’s a great honor to be the recipient of this award! It means a lot to me because I feel that my work was recognized. Normally as women, we don’t have that expectation of recognition because we were always taught to be moderate and humble about what we have achieved. We’re trained from childhood to constantly credit everyone else who has helped you in everything. That’s fine — but then don’t forget to credit yourself too. Don’t forget to thank yourself.
I’m thankful for myself and I’m not giving up. I’m also thankful for everyone in my path who has helped drive my ideas to research products. This award is not only for me, but also an inspiration for other women to see that these achievements can be done.
As one of the founding editorial board members for the newly announced journal GEN Biotechnology (published by Mary Ann Liebert, the publisher of Clinical OMICs), what are you most excited about in terms of this journal?
First of all, I love the high caliber of [the first group of] editorial board members at GEN Biotechnology. It’s amazing! I think the mission of GEN Biotechnology is exactly what we need right now. In GEN Biotechnology, we’re looking at: What are the needs? What are the technologies that can serve those needs? What are the topics that can really change and shape the future? These are really the most important topics in science and biotech and the major drivers for future innovations in healthcare.
I’m super excited to promote not only publishing in this journal, but also see how the journal can help these wonderful technologies go to the next level where they can become a product. In addition, many people from investors to industry are really attracted to the GEN family of publications significantly more than other publications. This also provides a higher chance for people to take their research from the bench to become products.