Keep Thinking Boldly: Spotlight on Dr. Jyothi Rengarajan
Dr. Jyothi Rengarajan offers this piece of advice to early-career scientists: be persistent in bold thinking. Rengarajan, professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said often, when people are younger, they have “bold visions” for themselves, which she urges them to hold onto. Support and mentorship are crucial for students to fend off self-doubt, especially for women and people of color, who might not always feel included in the field. “Stay as bold and ambitious as possible,” she said. “It takes courage to be bold, and that's the kind of character we should try to develop in ourselves. Courage and resilience.”
Growing up in Mumbai, India, Rengarajan was enveloped in science, and she quickly developed an innate sense of curiosity for how things worked. Rengarajan’s father was an astrophysicist, and she said pursuing STEM always felt like a “viable career.” But science wasn’t Rengarajan’s only childhood interest. She was—and is to this day—a voracious reader, devouring historical texts, classics and novels of all genres, including thrillers, comics and folk tales, when she was younger. “Reading literature was very escapist,” she recalled from her childhood. “I just felt like my own life didn’t seem all that interesting compared to the people in the books, so for me it was like, ‘wow, I can be Anna Karenina, or whomever I want.’ It felt like I was discovering the rest of the world from one corner of it.”
In addition to reading, Rengarajan harbored a passion for music. Starting at 8 years old, she trained in Indian classical vocal music and enjoyed attending concerts. After moving to the U.S., Rengarajan fell in love with jazz and the blues, and she continued to attend live music whenever possible. Analogous to her taste in literature, Rengarajan was drawn to music of all styles and genres. “Music continues to sustain me through difficult times and challenges in my work,” she said.
Even with her love of literature, history and music, Rengarajan ultimately decided to make the sciences her professional focus. “I really enjoyed biology early on. In fact, I used to be a big fan of the BBC Nature movies with David Attenborough,” she remembered. “Later, when I learned about genes and genetics, it started to really feel like that was something I wanted to do.” So she enrolled at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and earned her bachelor’s degree in life sciences and biochemistry in 1990.
But Rengarajan didn’t completely shelve the humanities and arts in her pursuit of STEM. “Science without the humanities is not complete,” she explained. “I don’t think you can dissociate yourself into this logical, rational person without bringing in the planet that we live on and the human experience.”
She applied to graduate school in the U.S., with the intention that she would focus on molecular biology and genetics. At Carnegie Mellon University, Rengarajan concentrated her efforts on yeast molecular biology research, and she realized after some “soul searching” her interests were more aligned with immunology. She therefore shifted gears and started working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in an immunology lab researching T cells in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis. “That experience was really informative because, from the beginning, I really liked the complexity of immunology and the immune system.” The principal investigator of the lab at that time, Dr. Vijay Kuchroo, was a “critical mentor” for Rengarajan who helped her hone her interest in immunology and disease.
As Rengarajan rose in the ranks of microbiology research and academia, she noticed that she was oftentimes the only woman or person of color in the room. “People like me, our voices aren't always in the forefront, and you see fewer and fewer women, and fewer and fewer minorities, as you continue in academia,” she said. “It affects you because you're often in situations where you have to speak up for something or you have to point something out. It sometimes feels like you're the one making trouble because you're raising an issue.”
In 1995, Rengarajan started a Ph.D. program at Harvard University, focusing her research on molecular immunology and T cell biology. At the end of her program, Rengarajan reflected on aspects of science and global health that had captivated her attention in scientific literature. She considered her absorption with infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis. In particular, she was fascinated by how the bacterium could evade host immunity. From 1996-2001, Rengarajan worked in Dr. Laurie Glimcher's lab researching transcriptional regulation of T helper cell differentiation at Harvard University's Longwood Medical Area. As Rengarajan's mentor, Glimcher was "instrumental in cultivating a sense of bold vision," she said. "I became an independent thinker in her lab which was a fast-paced dynamic environment with terrific people making exciting discoveries."
In 1999, as Rengarajan was finishing graduate school, Dr. Barry Bloom, whom Rengarajan described as one of the “grandfathers” of tuberculosis immunology and microbiology, assumed the role of dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Rengarajan approached Bloom and microbiologist Dr. Eric Rubin, now the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, about a collaborative research project. At the time, Rubin was developing functional genomics tools for studying Mycobacterium tuberculosis pathogenesis. Their paper, published in 2005, identifies M. tuberculosis genes required for the pathogen to grow in macrophages and identifies mutants that, in macrophage environments resembling different stages of the host immune response, exhibit diminished growth and virulence.
“Philosophically, I was interested in this idea of how we recognize self versus non-self, and how we combat infection and allergens but keep the body in homeostasis,” she explained. “Reading about those things [in the scientific literature] brought the complexity I liked and the intellectual pursuits,” Rengarajan added, highlighting that these complexities gave her a challenge to solve.
Currently, at the Emory Vaccine Center, Rengarajan’s research probes the mechanics of how M. tuberculosis interacts with host immunity. In 2020, about 1.5 million people died from tuberculosis, and approximately 10 million people contracted the infection globally, according to the World Health Organization. The aim of Rengarajan’s research is to study how the pathogen survives and combats the host, as well as how the host is trying to contain the bacteria. This will provide a clearer understanding of how to control infection through better vaccines and therapies. “That's important to give us insight into what constitutes protective immunity so that we can make a better vaccine, because one of the big gaps in knowledge is that we don't know exactly what constitutes protective immunity to tuberculosis,” she emphasized.
Rengarajan, co-director of the Emory Tuberculosis Center, said her team was recently awarded 1 of 4 Tuberculosis Research Advancement Center (TRAC) awards from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The TRAC grant will bring together numerous academic and professional interests, promoting the interdisciplinary nature of the research. “As a basic scientist, my work has evolved over the years to not only encompass studying M. tuberculosis in mouse models, but has also extended to collaborative studies on human immunity and nonhuman primate models of tuberculosis,” she continued. “I’m involved in several multi-institutional collaborative grants that include experts in mycobacteriology, bioinformatics, epidemiology and clinical medicine which is very rewarding.”
In 2017, Rengarajan joined the newly formed Women in Science at Emory (WiSE), a group that provides a safe space for faculty to share their experiences working in STEM and raise issues that others have been talking about for a long time but have not addressed with tangible solutions. For example, the group recently discussed issues pertaining to child and elder care in relation to COVID-19 and working from home. “We realized a lot of us have gone through some similar experiences—not always outright discrimination, but having a sense of not being included, or not belonging, or being overlooked, or not being appreciated enough or not being given credit for something. And we recognize that in other women colleagues as well,” she said. She is now one of 3 co-leaders of WiSE representing the School of Medicine and has advocated for these issues with Emory University’s leadership and administration.
“I would certainly be happier if I were in an environment where it was more diverse,” Rengarajan continued. “In that sense, it's affected my identity, because you do sometimes suppress a certain part of your yourself and personality just because the default is a certain majority culture.”
At Emory University, Rengarajan mentors multiple undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral scientists. She is proud of the diversity in her lab, which has included both U.S and international members. She is also a mentor for the ASM Minority Mentoring Program and a faculty mentor for Emory University’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), an NIH-funded program for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Rengarajan serves as chair of the DEI committee for the Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis graduate program and is actively involved in efforts within the graduate school focused on making Emory University a place that is more diverse and fosters a sense of community.
“Part of my advice is to really be conscious not to isolate yourself, and to seek out not just your advisor, but different types of mentors.” Rengarajan went on to explain that different mentors play different roles in our lives. “It is important to have mentors and advocates outside of your immediate scientific microbiology lab whenever possible.” Rengarajan encourages her peers to support and promote students in STEM—whether it is by nominating them for an award or scholarship or sending an email on their behalf—with the hopes that this guidance can help amplify their voices.