February 06, 2018
By Greg Peters
Spend just five minutes with Prachee Avasthi, Ph.D., in her office on the second floor of the Hemenway Building, and you'll quickly realize she's not your average assistant professor - she's a firebrand with seemingly endless energy.
Recently her passion for helping her peers in the early career researcher community has been rewarded. The prestigious eLife Journal chose her as the first early career researcher selected for its Board of Directors.
"This is really an honor because it's the first time they've ever done this," Avasthi said. "They are on the forefront of trying to incorporate early career voices and opinions at the highest level of their decision-making process.
"It's great exposure for our institution. It demonstrates that KU Medical Center is recruiting people who are involved in the worldwide community, and that we are doing work that is making a difference to scientific enterprise."
Supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, eLife is a not-for-profit company that publishes a scholarly scientific journal while promoting open dialog among researchers and encouraging responsible behaviors within the scientific community.
"We are delighted to welcome Prachee to the board," eLife Board Chair Toby Coppel said in a news release. "Her active engagement with early-stage researchers, and her strong passion to accelerate discovery in science, make her a tremendous addition to the eLife team."
A cilia scientist
The focus of Avasthi's lab at KU Medical Center is cilia, the antenna-like structures found in nearly every cell type in the human body. She works chiefly with Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a specific unicellular green alga, so easy to grow at room temperature that a high schooler can do it, but at the same time chock full of information valuable to researchers exploring how cilia signal messages throughout the body that are key to human life.
Avasthi became intrigued with exploring cilia while she was a graduate student at the University of Utah studying photoreceptors - the cells that respond to light within the human eye. One of the big advantages of working with photoreceptors is that an enormous amount of research has been done, especially looking at the proteins needed to turn light into electrical signals within the cells.
As a result, Avasthi could build off of an existing knowledge base and channel her energies looking into other areas. Much of her graduate work time was spent studying the trafficking of proteins throughout the photoreceptor cilium. While digging through literature related to photoreceptors, Avasthi says she found that she would almost always end up landing on papers about single-celled algae.
"So I went to do my postdoc in a Chlamydomonas lab at the University of California-San Francisco thinking, 'I have to go study this. I have to go study this model organism in which so much has been discovered in terms of the fundamental properties of cilia,'" she said.
Form and function
Avasthi launched her lab at KU Medical Center in 2015, and it didn't take long for her to start having an effect on the research community, albeit through an unexpected avenue. As she began organizing her lab, Avasthi started using an online communications platform called Slack to convey messages and share information with members of her lab.
And in a classic tale of form following function, Avasthi thought to employ the same communication platform she was successfully using in the lab to connect with other junior faculty. So New Slack PI was formed and grew quickly as early career researchers caught wind of the group.
"I thought, 'every single person who's starting a lab has the same challenges in trying to start a lab,'" said Avasthi, who didn't realize at the time that she was taking her first steps toward the eLife Board of Directors. "You essentially have an empty lab and an empty office, and you're trying to start a successful research program. We all have to figure out how to staff and supply the lab to get things running. We all have to navigate grants, teaching and mentoring.
"You don't have just 10 questions, you have a hundred questions. Issues come up multiple times a day that are hard to navigate when you are unsure about every single thing you're trying to do."
Avasthi also realized there is a cycle for most early career researchers. Many are looking for jobs at the same time, so consequently they are being hired and having to set up their own labs at about the same juncture. And they all desperately need information.
"It seemed like there were hundreds of people across the country and around the world who were doing the same things I was trying to do," she said. "Why are we all reinventing the wheel? So I wrote a blog post and said 'I'm starting this thing, and if anybody else who is a new faculty member would like to jump on, that would be great.''"
So far, more than 700 people have thought the idea to share resources and war stories in an online forum would be great. The group is limited to early career researches, so Avasthi and other volunteers verify each member before allowing access. The group also promotes its members through a public website that features a different principal investigator every month and provides a list of junior faculty available to give departmental seminars and conference talks.
Why not me?
Avasthi's seemingly inexhaustible energy is infectious, whether it's talking about her career or her new role on eLife's Board of Directors. So when eLife put out a call last year for candidates to join its Early Career Advisory Group, Avasthi was a natural. She started on the advisory board last summer, and in November traveled to Boston for eLife's annual meeting where her enthusiasm was further stoked.
"I saw how eLife was taking the Early Career Advisory Group's advice to heart," she said. "This wasn't something that was in name only. They were actually listening to this group and were using the advice to steer the organization. I was heartened that they really cared about this community."
Not long after the annual meeting, eLife put out a call for nominations for the first early career researcher to join its Board of Directors. Avasthi nominated two people she thought would be great leaders, but as she read the criteria one name kept coming to mind - her own. Avasthi realized she met much of the criteria eLife was looking for, and after several rounds of interviews, Avasthi received notice she had made the cut.
"I want to make sure early career researchers are represented," she said of her move to the board. "One of the things I realized from the meeting with the eLife leaders is that the experience and the opinions of the early career group is quite different from the people who have been doing this for many, many years. How policy changes or other initiatives might affect the early career community is something the leadership needs to know about and consider when they make decisions.
"The established investigators are very good about considering the perspectives of others," she continued, "but it's very different when you hear from people who are actually living inside the early career community."
Whether it's using student journal clubs to provide peer review for preprints or using social media to connect with others in her field, Avasthi is an early adopter when it comes to openness and innovation. She is especially enthusiastic about using preprints to obtain feedback prior to and during the journal publication process. She also recently joined the board of directors for ASAPbio, a scientist-driven initiative promoting the use of preprints in life sciences.
"I think there are people at every stage of their careers who are scattered across the spectrum between openness and reluctance," she said. "I don't think it's generational, I think it's personal. If the people in my New PI Slack group are any indication, I'm extremely hopeful for the future of science. The people there are very open and willing to share their experiences and feedback."