Raj Kannan, PhD
Apr 7, 2020
Hometown: Rochester, MN, USA
Current residence: Rochester, MN, USA
Graduate degree: PhD in Molecular Medicine
Current position: Head, Laboratory of Stem Cell and Cancer Biology, Mayo Clinic; Assistant Professor at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, USA
What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
I have established the first research laboratory at Mayo Clinic dedicated to applying cutting-edge methods in stem cell biology and organoid technology to study women’s cancers. My lab is primarily interested in developing molecularly guided cancer prevention approaches for individuals at high-risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer. More specifically, we are developing, characterizing, and culturing patient-derived organoids to define cells of origin of breast and tubal/ovarian cancers to identify actionable molecular-states that can be targeted with precision prevention approaches.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I spent several postdoctoral years investigating the mammary progenitor cells speculated to be involved in the genesis of breast cancer under the tutelage of stem cell pioneer Dr. Connie Eaves in Vancouver, Canada. My academic and career mentors, from high school to postdoctoral years, saw potential in me and spent their valuable time and energy grooming my skills. I believe it is the consequence of their collective effort and my commitment that has helped me succeed as an independent stem cell and cancer biologist.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Mayo Clinic is a unique work place. The prolific opportunities to collaborate with a number of inspired clinicians who are interested and willing to be involved in discovery science is very exciting. Equally exciting is to create research opportunities for research fellows and students, to challenge their thought process, and then to watch them conduct research with a sense of purpose and involvement.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Those who are serious about a research career should be well aware of the complex realities of our times and plan ahead. The available academic opportunities are limited and highly competitive. I strongly urge trainees to carefully choose career mentors who not only care about the brilliant science you need to publish but also stand by you and steadily work with you to identify and realize career opportunities. I feel that early stage research trainees tend to misjudge the nature and extent of involvement needed on the part of a mentor in shaping them and their academic career.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I will take some liberty to answer this question in my own way. My life has taught me that our ability to transcend work-related difficulties and limitations should come from meaningful pursuits, intense focus, and sincere efforts. My level of involvement keeps me stimulated enough. But, my postdoctoral training years in Dr. Connie Eaves lab remains fresh in my memory and continues to influence the way we approach stem cell questions in different epithelial systems.
How do you spend your free time?
I try to stay connected with friends in countries I have lived in, including: India, New Zealand, Canada, and US. I try to keep up with global current affairs and prefer listening to Carnatic Indian classical music. Of course, the priority is to spend as much time as possible with my wife and our 20-month old daughter.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
The following are less known facts about me. 1) I have advocated for the welfare of research scholars in my capacity as the Chair and Past-Chair of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS-ACSP) during 2014-2016. The CAPS-ACSP website that we created during my tenure has been viewed nearly 150,000 times. 2) I can fluently speak in three and read/write in five distinct languages. I wish to learn Mandarin.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
I see the ISSCR as the mothership that projects our collective voice and a platform to exchange knowledge and best practices in stem cell research. Personally, I use the annual meetings to strengthen my research collaborations and to recruit new trainees.