How Cell Biologists Work: Prachee Avasthi on ‘exuberantly’ tackling elegant experiments and the value of preprints

In this edition of How Cell Biologists Work, we interview  Prachee Avasthi, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, KS.  The Avasthi Lab studies the formation and regulation of ciliary structures using primarily Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, along with cell culture and mouse models. Their work uncovering the secrets behind these “cellular antennae” is expanding our knowledge of the diverse roles cilia play in human health and disease. Avasthi also writes great blog posts and is active in the sciTwitter community @PracheeAC.

Prachee Avasthi

Name: Prachee Avasthi

Location: Kansas City, KS

Position: Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology and Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Kansas Medical Center

Current mobile device(s): iPhone 7+; iPad pro 9.7in

Current computer(s): 5K iMac; 13” retina MacBook Pro

What kind of research do you do?

Using a unicellular green alga as a model system, we are trying to understand regulation of the cellular antenna, the cilium, and how its formation is coordinated with other cellular processes. We use genetic, biochemical, cell biological, and systems approaches to think about this problem.

What is one word that best describes how you work?

I asked my lab to help me out with this one and they all came up with a version of “exuberantly.”

What excites you most about your current work?

I love that we can continue to uncover fundamental properties about our system and the biology using technologies that have existed for more than 50 years (e.g., inhibitor washout/wash-in experiments and forward genetic screens). We combine those elegant experiments that allow us to infer what is happening with newer technologies that give us the ability to directly visualize different processes (e.g., TIRF microscopy and other forms of live cell or high resolution imaging).

Can you describe one formidable experience from your life or training that set you on this path?

I switched graduate labs after more than four years and started over in a new lab. While challenging at the time, it was probably one of the best things to happen in my career. I attribute many strong relationships, my current research interests, and much personal resilience to this event. It also gave me a great taste for what it would be like to be a postdoc (to start over in a new field and have the opportunity to choose my own research directions).

What is one part of your current position or project that you find challenging? Trying to mold my mentoring style to best fit several different personality types and many different career stages. We have high school students through people doing their postdocs in the lab.

Do you have any specific advice about establishing or running a lab for new or aspiring faculty?

Don’t work in isolation or be misguided that others are succeeding without the challenges you face. Also, for new faculty, join New PI Slack to get some advice and support from others going through the same things you are. You can do this by contacting me directly via email or Twitter.

Who is one of your scientific heroes, and what is one quality you admire in that person?

Ron Vale. Not only because he is a titan in the cytoskeleton/motor field, but because of his consistent efforts to improve the scientific enterprise (iBiology/ASAPbio).

What’s the best advice you’ve received or some advice you’d like to share with trainees?

I was a teaching assistant for the physiology course at Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute] years ago and a very successful scientist once told me how much more convincing it is to use orthogonal experiments to address a scientific question rather than do infinite replicates of the same experiment. This philosophy has permeated all of my work since then, and I make a point of saying it to everyone in my lab.

Avasthi Lab

What’s your favorite to-do list manager (digital or analog)?

Workflowy

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you live without?

Definitely Twitter to stay in touch with the broader research community. Slack to communicate with the lab and also for the peer support/feedback. Overcast for podcasts.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without? And how do you use it?

My Apple watch. I feel less tied to my phone knowing I’ll get alerted about important things. I also use it for step/speed/activity tracking.

What is one thing you never fail to do no matter how busy you are?

Eat breakfast. I LOVE breakfast.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Getting entertainment while running or commuting. Sometimes when things get crazy, it feels like there’s no time in the day to do something fun/relaxing, but I’m always listening to podcasts on a run or my commute. If I’m on the treadmill, I’m usually watching a movie.

What do you like to read, learn, or think about outside of lab?

Cosmology. One of my favorite books is The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics by Leonard Susskind.

Are there any causes or initiatives in or outside of science that you are particularly passionate about?

Preprints!  Preprints are scientific manuscripts posted to a server that is free to access by the worldwide scientific community. This is the fastest way to disseminate your research findings to the public and other scientists. Feedback can then be received from a much larger group than 2-3 anonymous reviewers to vastly improve the quality of the work before (or in parallel with) submission to an academic journal. Preprints are also citable and can be included in applications for grants and jobs to demonstrate productivity even if the journal article is held up for months to years in the publication process. This is great for students/postdocs who might need to demonstrate productivity to graduate or obtain a fellowship and is far superior to listing a “submitted” or “in revision” manuscript that cannot be accessed/evaluated. Go to ASAPbio.org to learn more!

What’s your sleep routine like?

I usually sleep between midnight and 6 am. If I wake up in the middle of the night because of my son or for some other reason, I rarely can get back to sleep. Thankfully, my lab has learned to turn off alerts from my excited middle of the night Slack messages. Most weeks, I take a solid nap on either Saturday or Sunday mornings.

What would you do if you weren’t doing research every day?

Maybe writing in some capacity, perhaps in science communication or on the history of science…although these days, I wonder if I would run for public office.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Everyone! I think it’s important to see how different our experiences are and that there’s not a single model for how things are done in science.

 

About the Author:


Jenny is a postdoc in John Rawls' laboratory at Duke University. She is currently studying host-microbe interactions in zebrafish. Twitter/Instagram: @hephephooray Email: jennyheppert@gmail.com

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