Kristala L. J. Prather ’94, the Arthur Dehon Little Professor, has been named the new head of the Department of Chemical Engineering (ChemE), effective Jan. 1, 2024.
“Professor Prather has already demonstrated tremendous leadership in her role as executive officer in ChemE. Her contributions to the department, particularly in navigating challenges throughout the pandemic, have made a lasting impact,” says Anantha Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “She is a talented scholar and a passionate educator. I look forward to working closely with her in this new leadership role.”
Prather joined MIT’s faculty in 2004. She studies the design of recombinant microorganisms for the production of small molecules. Her team at the Prather Research Group conducts research in three main areas: the design and assembly of novel pathways for biological synthesis; the enhancement of enzyme activity and control of metabolic flux; and bioprocess engineering and design.
Prather’s research seeks to address issues in climate and sustainability by reducing the need for fossil feedstocks for both energy and chemicals. She and her team design pathways to produce small molecules from renewable biomass rather than petroleum, and complement that work by developing novel approaches for improving productivity of biological systems.
As executive officer in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Prather oversaw operations and policies related to teaching, space, and the Course 10 undergraduate program. She has organized teaching assignments, managed space needs for new faculty members, and chaired the Task Force on Undergraduate Curriculum Revitalization.
Several weeks after starting as executive officer in February 2020, Prather was faced with the challenge of helping the department navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. She led the department’s transition to remote learning by regularly communicating with faculty about changes in academic regulations, resources, and Zoom best practices. Prather also led an infrastructure team that guided the department during both the shutdown and ramp-up of research activities.
Prather has been an active member of several initiatives and programs across the Institute. She has served as a member of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (now MITES) Advisory Board, co-director of the Microbiology Graduate PhD Program, and co-director of the MIT Energy Initiative's Energy Bioscience Low-Carbon Energy Center. Last year, Prather was a member of the MIT Presidential Search Committee.
A dedicated educator, Prather has taught chemical engineering to students ranging from first-years undergraduate students to seasoned professionals. She is the lead instructor of Fermentation Technology, the longest-running course offered by MIT Professional Education. Prather’s commitment to teaching has been celebrated with a number of awards, including a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, MIT School of Engineering Junior Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Department of Chemical Engineering Outstanding Faculty Award for Undergraduate Teaching.
Prather has also received numerous awards for her research advances, including the AIChE's Andreas Acrivos Award for Professional Progress in Chemical Engineering, the Charles Thom Award of the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, Biochemical Engineering Journal Young Investigator Award, and a Professor Amar G. Bose Research Grant. She has been named a fellow of AAAS, AIChE, and AIMBE.
Prior to joining MIT, Prather spent four years working in bioprocess research and development at the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. She received her bachelor’s degree from MIT in 1994 and her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1999.
Prather succeeds Paula Hammond, MIT Institute Professor, who has led ChemE since 2015. Hammond was recently named vice provost of faculty at MIT.
“Throughout her eight years as department head, Professor Hammond’s contributions have been transformative for the department. She spearheaded a number of curriculum enhancements, emphasized collaboration, and has been a true champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” adds Chandrakasan.