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Physician-scientist Krithika Lingappan is singularly dedicated to improving outcomes for premature and high-risk newborn babies.
A native of India, Dr. Lingappan completed medical school at Kilpauk Medical College in Tamil Nadu and pediatrics residencies at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, Miami Children’s Hospital, and the University of Chicago. She did her fellowship in Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and was awarded her Masters and Ph.D. from the Clinical Scientist Training Program at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Lingappan is a widely published, NIH-funded Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Neonatology section at BCM and a 2019 Young Investigator Award winner. While finishing her K08 work, Dr. Lingappan secured R01 funding to continue examining why girl preemies have better outcomes than similarly situated boy preemies, and how to translate her findings into better survival rates for baby boys. (Perhaps another investigator should study how Dr. Lingappan has already fit multiple advanced degrees, a career’s worth of publication and research, and a booming medical practice into her young life.)
Consistent with her curious nature, Dr. Lingappan likely became a physician-scientist partly because she was intrigued by the enigma of what physician-scientists actually do. And because she likes to shake things up.
“I remember a debate happening on the playground in fifth or sixth grade about what we wanted to do when we grew up,” she recalls. “I said then that I was going to be a scientist—I thought an engineer, because my dad was a civil engineer in the Indian Army—and suspected even then that one needed conviction to be a girl in science. At every step, girls must prove not only that they’re as good as, but better than, boys. So you need that piece of revolution in you that, when you’re told you’re not doing what’s expected, you keep going.”
And keep going she did.
But Dr. Lingappan hit what she perceived to be her first roadblock at the end of 12th grade, when her exams qualified her to study medicine, but not engineering. “My mom said, ‘try medicine. If you don’t like it, you can take a gap year and try again for engineering.’ But I loved it.” Eventually, she headed to the States.
At the University of Chicago, Dr. Lingappan had “a very strong female advisor.” Dr. Madelyn Kahana headed up pediatric clinical care and “embodied confidence and conviction,” which Dr. Lingappan is certain affects how she approaches her career to this day.
Dr. Lingappan decided to go into neonatology because “babies always brought out the best in me. It didn’t matter what kind of day I was having. I advise my trainees to pick their specialty based on where they want to be on the worst day of their lives.”
She also couldn’t shake her experiences in India. For example, when in medical school, Dr. Lingappan cared for a fifteen-year-old girl who delivered a premature baby by c-section. The baby died, and the mother remained hospitalized for four months because of her gaping wound. “There just wasn’t good wound-care,” Dr. Lingappan laments. “I changed her dressing twice a day, and it took 45 minutes each time. I was struck that this girl never complained. When she finally left, she was skin and bones. I have
no idea what happened to her. When I came to the US, I saw the dichotomy between medical care here and in developing nations. I think I’d be a different person had I not seen this.” The ability to bring US resources to bear on caring for premature babies felt like a unique privilege.
The desire to learn how to better practice medicine and make lifesaving discoveries continues to drive Dr. Lingappan’s work. “I came to BCM/TCH for my fellowship because I was looking for a strong background in both research and academics. The Texas Medical Center is unmatched in how dense it is in highly intelligent research minds and the diverse research topics you can pursue,” she explains. “If you have the right mindset, the Texas Medical Center has everything a young scientist needs to succeed.”
As for the humorless lab-rat stereotype? Dr. Lingappan dismisses it out-of-hand. “If you’re a curious person who always wants to ask the next big question, basic-science research is so fulfilling.”
After all, it was Dr. Lingappan’s basic-science research skills that allowed her to act on a question that nagged her: “In the NICU, the rule of thumb is that a [premature] baby girl could be OK, but a boy will need extra luck,” she says. “But even though this was an accepted clinical truth—boys have higher mortality rates, etcetera—no one knew, ‘why?’” This question became the basis for Dr. Lingappan’s K08 award, which led her to look at a particular kind of micro-RNA that girls make more of than boys. She wonders whether that micro-RNA protects baby girls’ lungs better than baby boys’ lungs, and that question formed the basis for Dr. Lingappan’s R01. “If we can figure out what proteins or pathways girls have that protect them, maybe we can establish those same protectors in boys,” she says.
And there is nothing better than seeing a premature baby soar. “I took care of one baby who weighed 395 grams at birth,” she recalls, smiling. “Now that baby is in first grade and thriving.” Dr. Lingappan sees the direct effect good science and research have on real lives in the clinic every day. “My research questions always have immediate clinical relevance. That’s my interest.”
Her unrelenting curiosity and determination to improve outcomes for premature babies only seem to be getting stronger. “In my work, there are always challenges that make me feel ignorant. There is always something I don’t know or can learn. Knowing and learning are the core of who I am,” she says simply. “I need research in my life to find fulfillment as a person.”
Dr. Lingappan is committed to one day bringing the fruits of her work to developing nations, starting with her native India. In the meantime, Dr. Lingappan’s colleagues, scientific community, BCM/TCH, and certainly her patients and their families, are thrilled to have her right here in Texas.