How Cell Biologists Work with Radhika Subramanian: Building up proteins and spirits in academia

Radhika Subramanian is an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Currently, she is studying cellular structures built from microtubules, and how they assemble, to better understand their function. Her lab uses in vitro experiments and cell culture assays to reveal how cells construct complex structures from protein building blocks—or “microtubule LEGO,” as she describes it. Subramanian first became interested in microtubules as a rotation student in Jeff Gelles’s lab at Brandeis University, where she watched kinesin molecules move along microtubules. Although much has changed from her time as a rotation student to her new role as a PI, Subramanian always begins her day with a strong cup of tea, and tries to spend some time at the lab bench or talking with people in her lab every day. Subramanian credits quality mentors and a strong peer group with providing key support and advice to overcome some of the challenges associated with being a new PI. To Subramanian, picking good mentors is the best advice that she has received in her academic career, and the advice she’d like to share with younger trainees. Thanks for sharing how you work!

Radhika Subramanian, Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School

Let’s start with your Name: Radhika Subramanian

Location: Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Position: Assistant Professor

Current Mobile Device(s): iPhone

Current Computer(s): Mac

What kind of research do you do?

I am a biochemist and we work on the microtubule cytoskeleton.

What is one word that best describes how you work:

Microtubule LEGO (hmm – that is 2 words!)

What excites you most about your current work?

In our current work, we are examining how micron-scale microtubule-based structures are organized from the collective activity of nanometer-sized proteins. By reconstituting these structures from the ‘parts,’ we aim to decipher the mechanisms that govern their architecture and function. I find the process of building complex cellular structures in vitro and uncovering new cellular mechanisms incredibly exciting.

Can you describe one experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

As a rotation student in the lab of Jeff Gelles at Brandeis University, I observed single kinesin molecules processively move on single microtubules. I have been hooked on microscopy since then, and I still love doing motility assays!

What is the primary model organism you use in your research and why?

A lot of our work is with recombinant proteins, and while we mostly work with human proteins, this approach also allows us to examine homologs of proteins in other organisms. We complement the in vitro work with experiments in human tissue culture cell lines.

Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a new PI?

It is exciting and it is challenging! It is deeply satisfying to see an empty space transform into a functional lab in the initial years, and the first set of new results from your own lab are very special. It is challenging because many aspects of the job are totally new as a junior PI. There is a range of different decisions to make every day, and that can be quite challenging. That is where good mentors and a peer group can be extremely helpful. The New PI Slack is a great resource (

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?

I have no specific advice. I would recommend celebrating every little milestone—the first successful experiment, grant submissions, paper submissions, etc! Also, it is helpful to have a peer group at your institute that you can meet with periodically.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

I could use some advice on this myself!

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?

Well, it is Post-It notes. It is not very effective but I find great pleasure in writing down my to-do list on a piece of paper and scratching items off upon completion. I believe there is a Post-It app—I have been meaning to try it out.

Mitotic cell at anaphase. Microtubules (green); Chromosomes (blue) ; PRC1 marking the spindle midzone (red)

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?

Skype, Dropbox, and email. I wish I knew of a time-saving trick for getting through and responding to emails! I also like using Quartzy for lab inventory and ordering.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?

None! Those are my only gadgets.

What is one thing you never fail to do (in or outside of lab), no matter how busy you are?

I try to spend a little bit of time in the lab every day—on some days it is only a few minutes talking to someone in the lab, and on other days I do experiments. I also like to check PubMed or bioRχiv once every day. Outside of lab, I never fail to drink a strong cup of tea every morning!

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?

I like to read broadly – fiction, biographies, travelogues, etc. I also like to travel and experience different places and cultures.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I have always been a night owl and typically work late at night (flexible hours is a privilege of being in academia). However, I always sleep a minimum of 7 hours, as I am dysfunctional without it.

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?

When choosing a lab for graduate or postdoctoral research, pick a good mentor.

This article is a collaboration: written by Vaishnavi Siripurapu, a freshman at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and edited by Jennifer Heppert.


About the Author:

Vaishnavi Siripurapu is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is majoring in Biology and Women's Studies. Twitter: @VaishSiri Email:
Jenny Heppert studies the cell biology of host-microbe interactions. She is currently a postdoc with Heidi Goodrich-Blair at the University of Tennessee. Twiiter: @hephephooray