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After completing his PhD at the University of Toronto, Anthony Vecchiarelli moved to National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland to do a postdoc. After three "strenuous" years on the job market he moved to the University of Michigan to set up his own lab studying subcellular organization in bacteria. An unexpected collaboration with another lab led to his first paper as a PI, which was published in eLife in December 2018.
Cells contain many different compartments, each of which has a specific role. However, we know very little about how these compartments are organized in bacteria. Our lab is particularly interested in a type of bacteria known as cyanobacteria which, like plants, make their own food via photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria remove a significant fraction of CO2 from our atmosphere using tiny 'factories' known as carboxysomes. If we can understand how these factories work, we could harness this knowledge in various biotechnological applications, including technologies that could help to combat climate change by removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
When I began putting the preliminary data for this paper together as a postdoc, I was in contact with a PhD student in Danny’s lab, Joshua MacCready, who had reached out to me for advice on a manuscript he was writing. At one point we got talking about future projects and realised we were both addressing the exact same scientific question, albeit using very different techniques. But instead of being secretive, and racing to finish our own half-stories, we floated the idea of collaborating. Danny was on board right from the start, and together with my first PhD student Anne Hakim, who is second author on the paper, we put together a great story combining a number of different experimental approaches that we’re all really proud of. From this experience I’ve gained an excellent collaborator in Danny, a great new postdoc in Josh, and it has set my lab in an incredibly exciting direction towards an untapped area of research.
There’s always that little voice inside your head saying, ‘you should hold back, that data is too preliminary to share’. But when it comes to science, I just can’t hold back my excitement. And although I sometimes get burnt as a result, the positive aspects of that behavior far outweigh the negative. This collaboration with Danny is a perfect example of how being completely truthful and open can have a significant advantage in the long run.
As a new PI you have to prove yourself as independent, which means getting a number of papers in which you are the only corresponding author. Author position can be really important to be considered a real candidate in this hypercompetitive market for academic jobs and funding. If you have too many collaborations it may look like your lab doesn’t have its own ideas, or always needs help finishing a paper. But, in my opinion that’s not how you publish the best story. By sharing preliminary data or ideas with potential collaborators you can identify new approaches that your lab alone may not be able to do.
We had a huge party where we invited the entire floor for food and drink. Josh is a big fan of Scotch, so I bought him an 18-year-old Glenmorangie and Anne’s favorite drink is milk, so I bought her a carton of Organic Horizon milk. Both the bottle and carton are now in my office with the eLife citation written on them. As a new PI it’s nice to see your work get out there, and in eLife no less.
One of the main things that I strive for is having my students and postdocs genuinely wanting to come into the lab every day. There’s a number of managerial techniques I use to try and facilitate this, such as having non-strict working hours, and providing constructive evaluation, which focuses on the positive aspects of a person’s work as well as the negative. I also like to encourage my students to show me as much negative data as possible, not only to help them move past these obstacles, but also so I can see how hard they’ve been working even when positive results aren’t being made.
How emotionally invested you get in the success of your students and postdocs. I take being a mentor very seriously, and I’m often up late at night wondering if I’ve done enough and thinking about ways I could improve. Having a significant role in the success of others is a huge responsibility, and the weight of that responsibility was more than I expected.
I definitely didn’t get here on my own - it takes a village to become a successful PI! You’ll find the PIs who are most successful typically have the largest support networks with multiple mentors and sources of guidance. If I were to summarize my village – I have a supportive wife, PhD and postdoc advisors who support me to this day, and since starting my lab in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Michigan I have gained multiple pre-tenure mentors who have been key to my success as a new PI thus far.
The science Twitter ‘hive mind’ is definitely part of the village that got me here today, I only regret not getting on it sooner. Through Twitter I have been invited to speak at conferences, I’ve been able to advertise my student’s papers, and I can use it to stay on top of research being presented at conferences that I’m unable to attend. You can also use Twitter to ask questions to the scientific community, and within minutes you can have multiple world experts weighing in on the subject. To demonstrate I actually tweeted out one of your questions earlier, and received over 20 different responses, many of which came with data and figures to back up their answers (The responses can be seen here).
The hardest aspect is having so many different commitments that compete for your time. When there’s so much to do in one day often your efforts get diluted, and this can leave you disappointed with the quality of work you're submitting. The two things I enjoy most about being a PI are first, those ‘data avalanche days’, when you come into the lab and are flooded with data from multiple people, and all the great discussions that follow. Second, is watching your students evolve into these amazing scientists, and knowing that you played a role in that.
Research has historically found that PIs do their best work in the first 10 years. However, in order to be considered a successful, independent researcher worthy of tenure there’s a very specific mould that all early-career researchers are expected to adopt. I worry that because of these expectations scientists now devote their formative years to ‘safe’ science, rather than trying new things in their research, teaching or outreach that are truly innovative and could have a significant impact on society.
At the start your hands will be the best at the bench, so try your hardest to stay out of the office, at least for the first two years. It is inevitable that all your writing obligations will eventually pull you away from the lab so much that when you return, rather than being the best, you’ll instead destroy one of your student’s experiments. But the longer you can resist that pull, the better.
2017 – present: Assistant Professor, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, US
2010 – 2016: Postdoctoral Fellow, National Institutes of Health, US
2003 – 2010: PhD in Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto, Canada
2001 – 2003: Honors BSc in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, University of Toronto, Canada