One to Watch

She is just a few years out of school, and already Nitsara Karoonuthaisiri is head of the government’s first microarray lab, and helping the next wave of even younger scientists achieve the same success.

Jan 13, 2010
Klomjit Chandrapanya
© Tatree Saengme-Anuparb

At 32, Nitsara Karoonuthaisiri is already 3 years into heading the Microarray Laboratory at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), has filed five patents, and been invited by the Inter Academy Panel, a global network of the world’s science academies, to mentor other young scientists in the world.

In this last capacity, Nitsara was first selected to attend an inaugural young scientists meeting in 2008, which ran parallel to the World Economic Forum summer meeting in Tianjin, China. She has now been elected to be one of the founding co-chairs of the Global Young Academy (GYA) whose members will be from the top 200 young scientists from around the world. The goal is to be “the voice of young scientists around the world” by creating a forum for young scientists to better interact with each other to promote knowledge sharing and networking opportunities, especially for those in countries where science currently receives low support.

Nitsara, however, is quite happy with conditions in Thailand, giving credit to understanding executives at BIOTEC and the Ministry of Science and Technology’s aggressiveness in raising public awareness about science in everyday life.

“Thai children are much more aware about scientific research than when I was a kid. They know to seek scientific solutions to their problems. I think a country can only grow if its people can think rationally and not be so superstitious,” says Nitsara, a recipient of a prestigious government scholarship.

She spent 10 years in the United States studying chemical engineering and obtained a BS with honors from Columbia University. She later completed her MS-PhD from Stanford, conducting research on the antibiotic-producing bacterium Streptomyces coelicolor, using DNA microarray technology.

Back in Thailand in 2004, she felt welcomed, but the culture shock of switching from studying to working and living in Bangkok was rough. Nevertheless, she was soon thriving. BIOTEC had a policy of nurturing new researchers by first putting them in established groups; Nitsara helped make DNA chips for teams working on malaria and shrimp. Without the microarray spotting machine, however, in the beginning she had to trek back to her alma mater at Stanford and Columbia to make the chips.

Now that the Microarray Laboratory is established here, Nitsara’s group is busy using array technology as a platform to serve different kinds of research needs for the country. Her team of seven is making arrays as a diagnostic kit to detect food-borne pathogens, “because to be the world’s kitchen, we have to ensure people that our food is safe.”

Another project is focused on the reproductive system of black tiger shrimps, an important Thai export. According to the Thai Shrimp Association, shrimp exports earned US$2.2 billion in the first 10 months of 2009, and are expected to rise to $3.01 billion this year. However, the industry is plagued with various problems, including disease outbreaks, slow growth, and sluggish maturation of breeders in captivity.

With the lack of genome sequencing of shrimps, Nitsara says the project is still in its early stages, trying to get as many genes as possible on the microarray. “The good thing about this is we’re creating new knowledge all the time because not many people in the world are studying shrimps.”

When she heard that she is being touted as one of Thailand’s brightest stars, Nitsara professed that a lot of that had to do with more senior scientists’ kindness, something she hopes to replicate now. “I want to do the same for younger scientists—treat them with respect, support them, and sincerely wish them well.”