Researcher Spotlight: "Leadership in promoting intellectual bravery"

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Wed Aug 4 2021

Author: Guest contributor

The ‘Researcher Spotlight’ series shines a light on the work and varied career journeys of the researchers who publish with us. We want researchers to be able to share their own personal stories and help others draw inspiration and extract learnings that can serve as a guide for the next steps in their own careers. These interviews provide insights and advice from researchers in different career stages and fields, from those who are just getting started in research to more experienced researchers.

Dr. Kiana Aran, Associate Professor of Medical Diagnostics and Therapeutics at Keck Graduate Institute, talks about the importance of establishing a team with multidisciplinary expertise and translating scientific discoveries into commercial products. She also shares her approach of how she motivates young researchers in her team, and discusses different sources of securing research funding.

What advice would you give a researcher just starting out in your field?

The field of biomedical research is a true multidisciplinary field that requires expertise in engineering, biology, mathematics, physics, computer science and more. Establishing a multidisciplinary team is essential to modern biomedical research. Teams with complementary expertise are important contributors to the advancement of scientific discoveries. Furthermore, translation of these scientific discoveries into commercial products requires additional expertise in instrumentation, manufacturing, clinical practices, regulatory affairs, and business development. Therefore, progress and impactful scientific innovations require interactions and collaboration with those from different fields. To achieve this, I encourage young researchers not to be afraid of sharing their ideas with peers or colleagues because this is where ideas mature, and collaborations evolve. I believe that’s how I was able to move my ideas and research projects forward as multiple different collaborations and myriad of ideas fostered the development of novel technologies in the lab and expanded them into commercial applications.

Also, as a leader and principal investigator, you need to invest and develop the foundation of an innovative team culture and promote intellectual bravery. Building such a team and culture will take a significant amount of time and effort but it gets easier as your team will attract other talents with similar mindsets.   

"... as a leader and principal investigator, you need to invest and develop the foundation of an innovative team culture and promote intellectual bravery."

Finally, my last piece of advice considers the research perspective. The perspective you hold regarding any situation can steer you in different directions. You may run into many challenges and obstacles but in those moments, it’s always important to hold a positive perspective. Rather than focusing on the obstacles, put your attention and effort into the possibilities that are in front of you.

How do you motivate young researchers in your team?

To motivate young researchers in my lab, I encourage them to focus on both the bigger picture and the end goal of each project, usually by envisioning where this technology could be applied. This design process motivates the team to focus on where they can have the greatest impact. By utilizing this approach, young researchers have the freedom to choose their own path in approaching scientific problems. They can take ownership of their work, which reinforces the idea that regardless of the size of their role, their work is crucial to the team’s overall productivity and objective of the project. 

In addition, I motivate junior researchers by having them involved in high-level meetings with established senior scientists as well as industry partners. This experience provides them with knowledge about what to expect in any future career. These senior team meetings showcase how imperative it is to keep a team motivated and provokes a similar drive in my junior team. From these collaborative experiences with senior members, junior researchers understand the importance of their work, can better envision their own future careers, especially in a team setting, and can walk away feeling accomplished.

And finally, as a leader and mentor, I strive to create a team atmosphere that is built on a collaborative support system as that is what I believe creates efficient, high-quality work.

What is your typical process for securing research funding? What best practices can you share?

Federal grants are a good source of securing research funding. However, it takes a lot of time and effort to even be considered for the awarding of these grants. What has helped me the most in grant writing is being very persistent, understanding reviewers’ critiques to improve my grants, speaking with program directors and seek their guidance. Besides federal grants, there’s also funding from industries and philanthropies that can benefit from your research. Industry-sponsored research funding are incredibly valuable in terms of providing more research resources for universities and expanding research projects that are valuable for industry, which is a win-win situation for your research and industry partner needs. As for funding in philanthropies, many philanthropic foundations are interested in research collaborations that leave a positive impact on the world. Try to identify those foundations and apply for the funding that best matches your research effort. And finally, don’t give up. Funding is limited and there are so many applications being reviewed every cycle. Be persistent and your application will receive the attention it deserves eventually.

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far and to what do you attribute these successes? If you could do anything different, what would it be?

I have a thirst for knowledge and learning new things as my curiosity is a motivating force in my daily life. I consider something a highlight of my career when this need is fulfilled. At this time of my career, I am very excited, motivated and can’t wait to start my work every morning both as an academic in running my research lab and as a leader running the innovations efforts at Cardea Bio. I am very fortunate that both my academic and industry jobs are great resources to fuel my daily learning, which can range from new scientific topics to leadership skills. 

Being in academia not only gives me a platform for mentoring new young scientists, but it also provides a space where I can be creative with novel scientific ideas while also providing the freedom to address burning questions in my mind. Being involved in Cardea Bio as one of the Co-Founders and the Chief Scientific Officer, I have the opportunity to work with the brightest people who share the same vision and learn from them. I have a great support network, full of talented people around me that motivate me to not only continue pushing the boundaries of science but my own personal boundaries toward personal growth. 

Pushing my personal boundaries has been a central theme in my academic and scientific career. I have failed many times in the past but have found success through perseverance and overcoming certain perceived limitations, occasionally with a push from my support network. In hindsight, I have realized that I have learned significantly more from my failures compared to my successes. If I could do anything differently, I would hold that notion with me and I would not be afraid of failure.

Why do you think making societal impact with research is important? And what tips do you have for researchers who want to maximize their societal impact?

As scientists, we aspire that our research will leave an impact on society and better human life. Society puts resources to train us as scientists with the hope that we discover and improve human health and human life. I believe it’s our responsibility to also give back and leave a positive impact on society with our research. This also motivates my creative process, as I love to think about the overall impact my work can have. To maximize the societal impact of our work, it is critical to design and work on meaningful projects, whether it is in basic or translational science. To achieve that, it is important to identify and address unmet needs in society. Carrying this mentality will allow you to tailor your projects to the needs of those who will be the ultimate users of your technology.

"I believe it’s our responsibility to also give back and leave a positive impact on society with our research."

How important is for you to ensure the legacy or continuation of your work?

Leaving a legacy is important for everyone, regardless of one’s work. I want to develop enabling technologies for life-science applications. I am excited to take part in modernizing and designing connected sensor technologies for biology and medicine. My goal as a scientist and innovator is to leave an impact beyond just another journal publication or another grant.  I want to work closely with great-minded people to create innovative solutions to better human life.

Other Blogs you might find interesting:

Researcher Spotlight: "The importance of working with multidisciplinary teams"

Researcher Spotlight: Empowering underrepresented scientists to utilize their expertise for social change

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Kiana Aran
About Dr. Kiana Aran

Dr. Kiana Aran is an Associate Professor of Medical Diagnostics and Therapeutics at Keck Graduate Institute, a member of the Claremont Colleges, a visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California Berkeley, and the Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Cardea Bio. Dr. Aran also serves as a Consultant of Drug Delivery and Medical Diagnostics for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She received her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the City University of New York in 2007 and her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Rutgers University in 2012. She then continued her postdoctoral studies in bioengineering at the University of California Berkeley and was a recipient of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoctoral training fellowship at the Buck Institute for Aging Research in 2015. Her research efforts focus on designing novel biosensing platforms, using 2D nanomaterials, for early disease diagnosis as well as utilizing biology as tech elements for a variety of biosensing applications. In addition to biosensing, she combines various engineering modules to develop tools to better understand the process of aging. 

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Dr. Aran’s scientific vision is to explore the utility of nano-electronic systems to develop transformative and customizable platforms for multiomics applications and commercialization of these platform. Her efforts have been recently recognized by many awards in science and STEM including the Clinical OMICs 10 under 40 Award and the Athena Pinnacle Award. Dr. Aran was also the recipient of the NSF Career Award to develop the next generation of electronic sensors.


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