Dr. Sethu Pitchiaya

By Matthew Rollins

Dr. Sethu Pitchiaya is a research investigator in the Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan. Since starting his research career in 2017, Dr. Pitchiaya has hit his stride in the field of long non-coding RNA research by developing single-molecule technologies to probe the roles of lncRNAs in cancer pathology. He has received several awards, including the AACR-Bayer Prostate Cancer Research Fellowship and the Prostate Cancer Foundation Young Investigator Award. That success has grown to an exciting next stage of his career: Dr. Pitchiaya is soon starting his own research program studying gene regulation in disease at the single-cell level.

"I am very excited about the research program that I will set up in my lab in July 2021. My group will study fundamental mechanisms of gene regulation and how gene-regulatory programs go awry in pathologies." Dr. Pitchiaya's lab develops and deploys new high-throughput single-cell and single-molecule analysis (HiTSS) tools to study RNA metabolism, especially localization, in stress response and cancer. "The initial thrust of my lab will be to investigate spatial organization, temporal progression, and cell-type specification of RNA-based regulation," he said. "To this end, we will take an interdisciplinary approach that integrates high-throughput single-cell and single-molecule analysis, with classical molecular and cell biology tools to interrogate gene regulation across biological scales (nanometers – centimeters)."

Dr. Pitchiaya's entry into the novel field of single-cell transcriptomics was, in his own words, "non-traditional." He explained, "I have always been adventurous with my research. I was trained as a chemical biologist and biophysicist as a graduate student in the group of Prof. Nils Walter, where I studied physicochemical principles governing microRNP assembly within the complex cellular environment and developed single-molecule microscopy-based methods to study the oligomerization of biomolecules." He credits his post-doc, where he spent years building new microscopes to visualize nanoscale biological events at millisecond resolution as the driving force in his RNA research career. "My post-doc provided me the opportunity to collaborate with researchers in areas of modern biology, ranging from mRNA transport to membrane protein localization. One such collaboration, with Dr. Fabrizio d'Adda di Fagagna's group (IFOM, Italy), led to the unexpected discovery of small and long non-coding RNA function in the DNA damage response. This piqued my interest in lncRNAs leading me to the laboratory of Prof. Arul Chinnaiyan, a renowned expert in precision oncology, to study lncRNA function in cancer. As an independent researcher, I am currently studying mechanisms by which RNA metabolism is regulated in physiology and altered in response to stress. Essentially, the size and types of RNAs I investigated increased as my career progressed!"

Learn from failures without the fear of it—your best discovery is perhaps one mistake away… enjoy the scientific endeavor!

Dr. Pitchiya's path has been anything but straightforward. "My scientific career path and staying within the same institute from graduate school through independent research is (was) considered somewhat non-traditional. But I stuck to my guts and have had a rewarding experience and exposure to widely different areas of research within a one-mile radius. It's important to understand that it's OK to take a non-traditional path, even if it means that you are the outlier. You just need to have a clear understanding of the goals you have set for yourself." He recognizes the University of Michigan community for investing in interdisciplinary scientists and is determined to pay it forward. "I am very passionate about mentoring future researchers, and thus far, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to mentor over 25 students with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience (high-school students to postdoctoral fellows). As a research mentor, I recognize the impact of getting mentees excited about a project and the importance of self-learning. I am also an advocate of interdisciplinary education - to enable inductive reasoning and draw inspiration from other areas of research."

Dr. Pitchiaya also emphasizes a strong support system as critical for a young scientist's success.  "I encountered a couple of health-related setbacks with prolonged recovery times which kept me away from the bench for a while. This took a toll on me, both physically and mentally, especially since they were at critical phases in my career. With the support of my family, friends, and mentor, I was able to cope and get back on track. It is important to have the right support system that can cheer you on, learn to take help from others, discuss your challenges openly, and give importance to your mental health. " In addition to finding a solid support system, Dr. Pitchiaya has four suggestions for young researchers: "(1) learn from failures without the fear of it - your best discovery is perhaps one mistake away. (2) Be ready for challenges and be willing to step out of your comfort zone. (3) Don't forget the big picture while hashing out the details, and (4) finally, enjoy the scientific endeavor!"

He hopes to grow that outlook and contribute to the growth of the RNA Society as a collaborative space for young scientists to thrive: "The greatest advantage of being an RNA Society member is the commitment of the society to promote scientific and career development. It provides a great platform to closely interact with leaders in the field and meet potential collaborators." Plus, he explained, it's fun! "RNA Society meetings have always been a lot of fun! One of the first international conferences I ever attended was the annual RNA Society Meeting in Madison, WI. As a naïve graduate student, I vividly remember being awed by the enthusiasm and the depth and breadth of science being discussed, sometimes with a beer in hand at the waterfront through wee hours of the night. And I learned that scientists rock the dance floor as well!

Besides his research, Dr. Pitchiaya enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, and his favorite RNA is "anything with 'GUAC'"! Dr. Pitchiaya can also be found outdoors. A self-described "National Park Junkie," he's visited 25 national parks so far with no plan on stopping. He can be reached on Twitter @SethuPitchiaya along with his personal website and lab website.