Harshini Mukundan

Program Manager, Office of National and Homeland Security, and Microbiologist

November 8, 2022

Harshini has lived many professional lives. Originally from Chennai, India, and having completed college in Delhi (for the most part), she went to the U.S. for graduate studies, worked at a biotech startup for a couple of years, and then became a National Institutes of Health (NIH) postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 2009, she was hired as a scientist at Los Alamos, where she remained for many years. In this role, she helped to grow their diagnostics portfolio on global health, pandemic preparedness, and national security, and then transitioned to serve as the Group Leader for Physical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy. 

Berkeley Lab recruited her to join the Lab this summer with dual roles. Harshini will continue with her scientific endeavors with the Biosciences Area while also working in the Lab’s Office of National and Homeland Security (ONHS) to help the Lab explore and take advantage of rapidly expanding national security opportunities. Her partner Rangachary Mukundan also made the move, joining the Energy Technologies Area as a senior scientist. 

What is your role at Berkeley Lab?

I have two roles at the Lab – I am program manager for chemical and biological technologies at ONHS and also a scientist in the Biosciences Area. In the first role, I work with John Valentine to facilitate development and curation of programs in the national security space. In the aftermath of the pandemic, many government agencies are looking at how they can help with preparedness and resilience in addressing emerging biosecurity threats. Whether we call it biodefense, pandemic preparedness, or bioassurance – these are just some of the terms that the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Energy (DOE) are using – these efforts focus on mitigating the health, economic, and societal impacts of epidemics and pandemics in the future. 

My job is to help integrate capabilities across the Lab and align them with the interests of DOD, DOE, and other federal agencies, facilitating the development of new programs. It’s a Lab-wide effort. I’ve already reached out to several scientists at the Lab, not just in the Biosciences Area but also in Materials Sciences and Computing Sciences, and at the Advanced Light Source (ALS), to name a few. Beyond these integrated programs, I also look forward to supporting PI-driven science and can help facilitate program design and interactions with relevant program officers. 

My other role is as a scientist with the Biosciences Area. Over the last 15 years, I have developed a portfolio of research related to how infectious disease and human hosts interact with each other. My research has included diagnostic applications, including biomarker discovery, as well as advancing basic understanding of human health in response to infectious disease. Specifically, I have explored how biochemical interactions at the interface of hydrophobicity (resistance to water) and hydrophilicity (attraction to water) impact host-pathogen interactions, and how these concepts can be exploited to develop physiologically relevant diagnostics and countermeasures. Beyond infectious diseases, I am also interested in the study of neurological diseases, and in bioengineering solutions (such as sensors and microfluidics) to transition science to the field. I am continuing to collaborate with Los Alamos, but am excited to explore synergies with Berkeley Lab scientists. I have been impressed by the many scientists I’ve already met with, and am looking forward to meeting many more at the Lab. 

What are the opportunities for researchers in this space?

Opportunity is ripe in these areas. Many Department of Defense agencies (for example, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s Biological Technologies Office), as well as other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are interested in the science of human health. They are interested in a broad set of topics – how changes in the climate impact the spread of infectious disease, vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic technologies, the characterization of pathogenic agents, cancers, traumatic brain injury, materials for warfighter uniforms – these are just some of the areas that are of interest. However, emerging technologies and applications of new strategies to countering pathogens is always of interest, so, if you have an idea that may be relevant, please reach out!

How should researchers work with you and John Valentine?

Just reach out to us. I’m more focused on biological and chemical technologies and their application to human health and national security. John is more focused on the physical sciences, nuclear and radiation sciences, and other programs. But you can reach out to either of us with any question – we work as a team to help advance your research interests. We can help PIs develop their ideas or help synthesize these ideas with those of other researchers.

John and I also plan to conduct outreach – we will ask Associate Lab Directors and Division Directors to help us identify the right people to talk to, and we will follow through with the researchers. I am planning to resurrect the Lab’s Biodefense Working Group, which will meet occasionally to share notes and new opportunities. PIs who are interested in joining should contact me.