As a scientist, publishing research in peer-reviewed journals is essential to establishing your reputation. Publishing work in journals contributes to scientific discovery and helps answer fundamental questions, and it’s also an opportunity for individual growth and merit. Publication leads to visibility and exposure, as well as validating your work. But the science has to be solid before a high-impact journal picks it up.

What I learned from a highly-cited investigator

As a post-doctoral fellow at St. Jude, I learned first-hand what pushing the boundaries of research and investigation can do. Thirumala-Devi Kanneganti, PhD, is vice-chair of the Immunology Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Rose Marie Thomas Endowed Chair. As a leader in immunology, she was recently named to Clarivate Analytics’ 2017 Highly Cited Researchers list, which highlights investigators who distinguish themselves by publishing a high number of papers over an 11-year period and rank in the top 1% most-cited in their respective fields.

Prolific publication in high-impact journals means that the researcher’s work has been repeatedly judged by his or her peers to be significant. Kanneganti is a fearless investigator and never shies away from unexplored models. Here’s what I learned in her lab:

1. Be bold

Go after unexplored areas. Kanneganti’s robust investigations on inflammasomes and Nod-like receptors – immune system mediators that help regulate inflammation – is admirable, given that there was so little known about the cellular complexes when she joined the field. She encouraged us to stake similar claims for investigations, asserting the science we were researching benefitted others.

2. Be rigorous

In the Kanneganti lab we worked diligently to ensure rigor and reproducibility in all of our studies. To this end, Dr. Kanneganti would routinely task members of the lab or collaborating groups at other institutions to reproduce all major discoveries before manuscript submission. Dr. Kanneganti also regularly led discussions in our lab meetings on the importance of transparency, proper controls, and experimental blinding in our research.  These lessons have been invaluable to me as I am now training the next generation of scientists in my lab.

3. Be competitive

By working in her lab, I gained an outstanding perspective on what it takes to be successful as an investigator, and how publishing research fits into that success. Kanneganti has high expectations for members of her lab. Our diverse responsibilities also helped us become well-rounded and better prepared professionally.

4. Be an advocate

As a post-doctoral fellow, I was expected to lead experiments and submit studies for peer review, in addition to assisting with other lab members’ experiments. It was a challenging, competitive lab environment. We were expected to work hard in Kanneganti’s lab, understanding that she worked just as hard to support us. She traveled internationally to major conferences to advocate for our work, sharing research to respected immunologists and leaders in science while also supporting our individual career development.

5. Be curious

With her training and support, I was prepared when I began my career as a faculty member in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia. My research focuses on understanding how immunological pathways contribute to neurodegenerative, neurodevelopmental, and mental disorders. The work I helped with in Dr. Kanneganti’s lab inspires some of my work today. I use information from that research of inflammasomes and innate immune signaling pathways to inform how it affects inflammation in the brain and central nervous system-related tissue damage.

I attribute my early career success to Dr. Kanneganti’s guidance and the benefits of being published in highly-cited, high-impact journals such as Nature, Immunity, the Journal of Immunology, Cell Reports and others. Kanneganti supported me in a number of ways professionally, and I’m grateful for that support. I use those lessons I learned in her lab to get published and continue my professional development.