Inside Track: Social entrepreneur wears many hats
Engineer, psychologist, activist Dr. Mira Krishnan blends drive for helping underserved with problem-solving skills.
If wealth were measured by intellectual capacity, Dr. Mira Krishnan would be Queen Midas.
Krishnan, principal of psychology consultancy Mira Krishnan LLC, has followed many passions in four decades.
The range of interests she has pursued might be confounding to some, but she sees a through line.
“I solve problems that bring people together with science to make lives better,” she said.
As a child growing up in Warren, then Holland, Krishnan wanted to build rocket ships. She began studying aerospace engineering as a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1993.
But then a bend in the road appeared, and she followed it toward engineering physics. She describes the discipline as a “build-your-own” degree. It allowed her to study electives, such as quantum physics, while learning principles to develop advanced technologies.
“Then I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I applied to grad school (also at U-M). I did two years of applied physics research in ultrafast optics,” she said. “I ended up getting a master’s degree in nuclear engineering.”
After grad school, Krishnan spent six years in the auto industry, working at two of the Big Three: Ford Motor Company and General Motors.
“I got a reputation as a fixer,” she said. “When I was an engineer, I inherited a disaster project at the company I was working for at the time. The company had licensed a technology that didn’t do what it was supposed to. I became the fixer.”
Although she enjoyed solving problems, she was hungry for more human interaction.
“I find problem-solving in physics really fascinating, but in hindsight, I was always more about the people. I find their stories fascinating,” she said.
“I think it was Marie Curie who said, ‘In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons.’ It was on the wall of my graduate school at Michigan. It didn’t seem quite right to me. I like both.”
Her experience as a transgender woman and sensitivity toward social justice issues is part of what propelled her toward a more human-centered direction, she said. She wanted to understand the brain and the emotions and how they influence behavior.
Krishnan started researching neuropsychology.
“I went to the University of Florida to interview, and I interviewed with the person who would later be the chair of the department,” she said. “I interviewed with him and said I didn’t know what neuropsychology was, but they asked interesting questions and saw interesting patients, so if he’d take me, I’d love to do it.
“So then I got my Ph.D. at the University of Florida in clinical psychology. I did my internship at the University of Chicago and came back to do a fellowship at Mary Free Bed.”
On the other side of her fellowship, Krishnan has worked as an adjunct psychology instructor at Grand Valley State University, as CEO of an LGBT-focused organization called The Network, director of Hope Network’s Center for Autism, and clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Michigan State University — though not all at once.
During 2015 and 2016, she began a new endeavor: a consulting practice in which she now works full time.
Settled in her own office and able to set her own agenda, Krishnan has found herself drawing on her varied work experiences:
- She sees patients at Hope Network.
- She conducts “forensic evaluations” of automobile accident survivors to determine their impairment levels and mediate civil disputes.
- She consults with a state agency called Disability Determination Services.
- She uses her engineering training to look at problems on the nano-, micro- and macro-levels, including how to change systems.
“In the psychology profession, I think about patients and their individual problems, but then there are things I can do at the systems level, like changing the law and doing public outreach,” Krishnan said.
Krishnan has poured herself into diversity education, philanthropy, and advocacy for children with autism and the LGBT community.
While working for Hope Network, Krishnan pushed for a law that passed in 2012 requiring insurance companies to cover applied behavior analysis therapy for autistic children, which costs $50,000 per year. Michigan was the 32nd state to adopt the requirement.
In November, Krishnan received the 2017 Casey Wondergem Award from the Grand Rapids Public Museum for her role in creating a planetarium show that is accessible to autistic children, as well as creating a charity walk for autism.
“We brought the museum and Hope Network together to do an annual event on the Blue Bridge, an autism walk,” she said. “Since then, the energy we brought around them has sucked in collaborations and compatriots. My goal was to send a message that autistic kids belong in the heart of the city.
“Then, by really random chance, Dale Robertson, the CEO of the museum, asked me to join the team that was putting together a new planetarium show called ‘Subatomic’ about the discovery of the Higgs boson. … We started with a question of, ‘How can we make this friendlier to autistic kids?’”
Krishnan noted that although autistic children often come from families that excel in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), their employment outcomes are dismal compared to non-autistic individuals. The unemployment rate for autistic adults hovers at 50 to 60 percent.
With “Subatomic,” Krishnan wanted to find a way to keep autistic kids interested in scientific systems instead of impaired by social and sensory overload.
“We talked about doing sensory modifications (for the show). Those things have to do with managing short attention spans, and that doesn’t just affect autistic kids,” she said. “What was really different from any planetarium show was having hands-on exhibits, so people could go from the typical planetarium show (passive learners) to active learners.”
The show debuted in October and continues through this month.
Krishnan’s other passion — diversity education — is a work in progress.
She wants to find ways to use “gamification” — using video games to teach concepts — to help people develop empathy toward diverse populations, such as transgender people.
Referencing the Heineken “Open Your World” beer commercial that aired earlier this year, Krishnan said individuals are more apt to keep an open mind about those who are different from them if they can meet and get to know them, rather than sitting through a lecture on diversity in the workplace.
“In the commercial, they talk together in the dark, and they can’t see each other,” she said. “Then they turn the lights on. They’ve already invested in each other. They’re joking around with each other in a way they wouldn’t do otherwise. Part of that has to happen in real life. There’s no substitute.
“We can give people data, but the implicit bias research says you need that level of personal interaction. That’s the piece that’s difficult to do with traditional education, but there are opportunities to weave that into other formats.
“When people have initial personal positive regard to a community, when they have knowledge and real depth of information, (that’s when minds change).”
She said solutions to issues facing transgender people, such as an attempted suicide rate of 40 percent and lack of access to health care for hormone therapy or surgery, need to start with the perspective of recognizing their value as human beings.
“In my case, that’s what everybody did. I’ve been blessed, and it’s allowed me to do things for other people,” she said.
“LGBT people, if you just embrace them for who they are, they live amazing lives. Where I see my role is in that LGBT people have a ton to give to our communities, and we just need the opportunity to do that.”