Headshot of a blonde woman wearing a blue shirt
Kara McKinley, PhD, Assistant Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology

What is the focus of your research?

My lab studies the biology of menstruation. I often say we study menstruation because it is awful and because it is awesome. Most people understand why it’s awful: menstrual pain, endometriosis, fibroids, heavy and/or unpredictable bleeding etc. can have tremendous impacts on quality of life. Research, medicine, and society have not yet found ways to address many of the burdens imposed by menstruation. But from a regenerative medicine perspective, menstruation is also awesome – in the true sense of awe-inspiring. A major goal of regenerative medicine is to allow humans to replace tissue damaged by trauma, disease, or aging. In most cases, our body prefers to rapidly patch wounds with scar tissue, which limits the functionality of the organ. But menstruation involves extensive damage to the uterine lining (endometrium) that is rapidly repaired without any scarring. Even more amazingly, this repair process happens over and over again throughout life. We think the uterus is a unique model to learn how we can help our bodies heal from damage because it experiences extensive, repeated, scarless regeneration as a core element of its normal function.


How are you able to study menstruation in animal models?

One of the big challenges of studying menstruation is that the list of known menstruating mammals is short: some primates, some bats, spiny mice, and elephant shrews. Our beloved house mice don’t naturally menstruate, although they can still be powerful models to study endometrial regeneration because there are ways to induce endometrial shedding, and they also undergo endometrial damage during parturition. We use these approaches to allow us to leverage the immense toolkit and infrastructure for laboratory mice to understand fundamental mechanisms of endometrial regeneration. In addition, we are very lucky to be collaborating with Ashley Seifert, who pioneered studies of spiny mice for their remarkable skin regeneration, and Ashley has helped us establish our own spiny mouse colony here at Harvard. We are very excited about the opportunities that this system offers to study true menstruation in vivo.


How has your research focus evolved?

My postdoctoral research focused on regenerative mechanisms in the intestine. I have a longstanding interest in how cells change their behavior when tasked with a regenerative demand. Miniaturized mimics of the intestine that grow in a dish (organoids) provide a powerful opportunity to be able to watch the response to regeneration in real time using microscopy. This was the focus of my postdoctoral work. During my postdoc, I was reading a lot of papers about organoid approaches in general and had started to dip my toe into the reproductive organoid literature reading about fallopian tube organoids. When Margherita Turco and colleagues published an approach to culture the endometrial lining as organoids in 2017, it led me down a rabbit hole learning about the endometrium. I became hooked on this incredibly dynamic system that changes its architecture on a day-to-day basis and also has such an important impact on people’s lives day-to-day. I’ve since become friends with Margherita but I’m actually not sure I’ve mentioned this story to her – she may not know until I send her this interview that she changed my life!


What led you to join the SCRB department?

I feel that this department really embraces the idea of taking big risks to solve hard problems, and I aspire to do science more bravely because I am inspired by the examples of my colleagues. I think back very fondly on my recruitment process here. I knew that I wanted my lab to study the endometrium, but initially I was relatively cautious about saying I would dedicate my whole lab to it because pivoting directions from my postdoc was going to be risky. This department encouraged me to take the leap from the minute I got on my first phone interview for this position.

I have also benefited enormously from Paola Arlotta and Amy Wager’s leadership of the department and having been hired as part of a cohort of 4 junior faculty who can navigate the tenure-track together. There are some pervasive perceptions about Harvard that I heard a lot before I interviewed here: that it is cut-throat or hypercompetitive or sink-or-swim. When I interviewed, I was amazed at how supportive everyone was. I felt in my chalk talk that the faculty were trying to help me to build the best possible research program and offering really creative and critical thought to help me get there. I continue to feel that my colleagues are deeply invested in me. One of my most prized possessions is a book about menstrual experiences (Our Red Book), signed by the author and with a note from her to me, given to me by a senior colleague in my department.

One last thing before I stop answering this question: something that plays a big role in my happiness is the department’s investment in its undergraduate teaching mission. Building my course (SCRB 135: Reproductive Biology) from scratch was so hard but I love that I can teach about what interests me and what I think is important, including bringing in discussions of reproductive bioethics with the incredible Louise Perkins King. I couldn’t have done it without the support of the HSCRB education team (particularly Julie Park), who helped me turn vague thoughts and dreams into an actual syllabus. I am so proud of the course and of the students who have taken it, who ask insightful questions and develop graduate-level research proposals for their final projects. This past fall, I also taught developmental biology as part of LS50 (Integrated Science, a first-year course) and the students were amazing. I find teaching to be an incredibly fulfilling part of my job.


You’re passionate about promoting equity and diversity in the life sciences. Can you talk about the work you’re doing in this space?

I’m the founder of Leading Edge, a program designed to improve the proportion of biomedical research faculty who are women and/or marginalized genders. The program selects ~30-45 postdocs a year as Leading Edge Fellows. We just selected the 2023 cohort, so the Leading Edge community has now grown to 166 amazing people! To me, the most important thing Leading Edge provides is a forum for cross-institutional peer mentorship: Leading Edge Fellows have a very active Slack channel to exchange questions, feedback, and advice on all aspects of the life of a scientist (which, of course, also includes life outside of science). In addition, Leading Edge Fellows present their work through an annual symposium. For the first 3 cohorts, this symposium occurred virtually because of the COVID pandemic, but in June we’ll be having our first in-person Leading Edge Symposium at the Janelia Research Campus! It is hard to convey how excited I am.

Finally, a beautiful thing that has emerged from Leading Edge is that the Fellows have been very committed to paying forward the things that they have learned through the program and through their experiences navigating academia. They have been publishing a variety of informative articles designed to demystify aspects of the hidden curriculum and shape institutional policies.


You also were recently among 31 inaugural Freeman Hrabowski Scholars named by HHMI. What does this appointment signify for you?

I am absolutely thrilled to be selected as Freeman Hrabowski Scholar and grateful that HHMI chose to invest in our work in reproductive health. This appointment is particularly special for two reasons. First, it is a profound honor to be part of a program that honors Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s towering legacy in shaping how the scientific community pursues inclusive excellence. In addition, it is a true joy to join this cohort along alongside my Harvard Medical School colleague, Josefina del Mármol, who is an absolute superstar that I am lucky enough to call a friend.