Kris Kilian

What is your current position, and what do you do?
I am Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA with affiliations in the Micro+Nanotechnology Laboratory and the Institute of Genomic Biology. My laboratory is interested in how the properties of the microenvironment in tissues influences normal and pathological processes. We explore fundamental questions in biology using engineered extracellular matrices to discern how our body’s cells “read” materials, and convey this information into functional bioactivities. Our biological focus is on stem cell biology for regenerative medicine, and cancer biology to devise new treatment strategies. This work is highly interdisciplinary and involves surface chemistry, polymer science, cell and molecular biology. I am also Associate Professor in a new engineering driven College of Medicine where we are integrating engineering principles into the curriculum to train the next generation of doctors in technology development and translation.

Describe your study/employment pathway so far
I received B.S. and M.S. degrees in Chemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle WA, in 1999 and 2003 respectively. Thereafter I worked for Merck Research Labs in Seattle in the Methods Development group from 2000-2004 before travelling to Sydney to do a PhD in chemistry with Justin Gooding at UNSW. My doctoral research involved the development of nanostructured porous-silicon based photonic crystals and their chemical modification for optical biosensors and biomaterials. In 2007, I joined the laboratory of Milan Mrksich at the University of Chicago in the USA as a NIH postdoctoral fellow to investigate new methods for directing the differentiation of stem cells. I joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in 2011.

What has been your biggest challenge, career-wise?
My biggest challenge by far was the establishment of my laboratory at Illinois. As you start a faculty career you are expected to wear many hats. In the USA, academia is centred on three pillars – teaching, research, and service – which essentially involves doing three jobs at once. Managing these responsibilities and the time needed to be successful at each is an incredible challenge. In addition, while I was confident in my research, I was teaching for the first time, and I found it very difficult to prepare and deliver lectures while working in the laboratory with a team of graduate students, serving on committees, organizing activities for student outreach, writing grants and papers, etc. It can be very difficult to manage such a complex schedule.

What achievement are you most proud of?
The accomplishments I am most proud of are, by far, the students I have trained and mentored as they move forward in their own careers. While my primary driver to go into academia was research, I find that working with students, and guiding them towards reaching their goals is incredibly satisfying. I am very proud of the undergraduates and postgraduates that I have influenced as they develop themselves and make impacts in their chosen fields

What do you believe are the greatest attributes of a successful scientist?
A scientist needs many things to be successful: intelligence, rigor, passion, the list goes on. In my view, curiosity and creativity are the greatest attributes of a scientist; always asking questions, and coming up with innovative ways to answer them is what makes science fun, and ultimately leads to impactful discoveries.

What are your interests outside of work?
Outside of the laboratory I spend most of my time with my family, often playing whatever game is in fashion at the time with my kids. I also enjoy anything that gets me outdoors, e.g. hiking, camping, snowboarding, etc. I have played drums for many years, and while I’m no longer expecting label reps to call, I still enjoy getting together with other musicians to improvise.

What helps you achieve a work-life balance?
In order to ensure curiosity and creativity, I find it incredibly important to have a good work-life balance. Scientists are not very good at “turning-off” and I find that science is always on my mind. However, relaxing and keeping up on hobbies is a great way to take a breather while the new ideas take shape in the background. There are always crunch-times where work has to take centre stage, but I think many of my best ideas have nucleated outside of the office and lab.

What advice would you give to students starting their science careers?
Don’t give up! Scientific research is challenging, and negative results are more often the norm. Enjoy the process, maintain a positive outlook, feed your curiosity and creativity, and all will be well.

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