Researcher spotlight: F32 recipient Dr. Preeya Khanna

A headshot of Dr. Preeya Khanna accompanied by the words "REsearcher Spotlight Series" and "Focus on Fellows"

Dr. Preeya Khanna is a F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to study motor control restoration after stroke. The F32 funding opportunity supports the research training of promising researchers early in their postdoctoral training period.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities portfolio enables the collaborative and multidisciplinary research necessary to help us understand the brain’s complexities. Dr. Preeya Khanna received an Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support her research on restoring dexterity and motor responses after stroke. The F32 program rewards promising postdoctoral researchers early in their careers by enhancing their research training in project areas that advance the goals of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. Applicants do not need to provide preliminary data and can submit their applications before joining the post-doctoral program. The next deadline to apply for an F32 award is December 9, 2022

Check out the interview below to learn more about Dr. Khanna’s motor control research. She discusses how she became interested in her field of research and what motivates her, in addition to challenges, next steps, and what advice she’d give to other early career researchers interested in the F32 program. 

Would you please briefly introduce yourself?  

Hi! My name is Preeya Khanna (she/her/hers) and I’m a postdoc in Dr. Karunesh Ganguly’s lab at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). I study how the brain’s motor control networks are damaged after neural injuries like stroke, and then use these principles to design neurotechnologies that can help restore healthy neural patterning and movement control. 

What led you to research?

I had always enjoyed math and science subjects, particularly biology. In college, I thought about what careers I might have where I could continue to explore my STEM interests, and this led me to consider being a doctor or a researcher (though I now know these choices are not mutually exclusive!). I sought out different experiences in college to explore these career options.

My meandering path included a semester working in a cancer biology lab, a summer working in a genome sequencing lab, another summer in a haptics robotic lab, an independent research project in modeling cardiac irregularities, a semester shadowing a clinician, and a couple of years working as a data analyst for a pharmaceutical company. While very different experiences, from each I learned more about what types of work I enjoyed and just as much about what I didn’t like. All around, I realized I liked getting to think about challenging biological problems and using mathematical approaches to address them.

For me, it was very helpful to have had so many different experiences since these helped me see how varied research careers could be. Even though I didn’t like pipetting, for example, I was able to see that didn’t mean I didn’t like research – it just meant I liked research that used a different set of skills.

What continues to drive your ambitions as a scientist?

I’m fascinated by the skillful manual dexterity humans and primates have. While musicians, artists, and athletes all exemplify expert dexterity, even commonplace movements like typing on a cell phone or using tools in the kitchen amaze me. We use our hands to type sequences of characters we’ve never typed before and use kitchen tools to prepare all types of foods in different ways.

The skillfulness of our hands makes the loss of dexterity and hand control devastating. I’m motivated to uncover basic principles underlying hand function to design technologies that can help restore dexterity to patients who have lost it, like stroke and spinal cord injury patients.

What major unanswered questions do you hope to address?

While many groups have studied the neural circuitry underlying basic motor control of the hand, I’m particularly interested in how we solve problems with our hands. How do we process the signals from sensors in our skin and muscles in light of our current goals to figure out what movement to do next? At a lower level, how do the statistics of activity in our somatosensory system drive and shape the neural activity in our motor network that generates hand movements?

Hands are particularly interesting me because, unlike whiskers on rodents, hands serve as both our way of actively sensing our environment, as well our way of manipulating and changing our environment. I am interested in understanding how needing to use hands for these two roles influences solutions to both.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your research and/or career? How have you or how are you working to overcome them? 

Like every experimenter, I’ve had technical experimental challenges. I’ve had equipment break at inopportune times, surgeries that haven’t gone according to plan, and difficulties in training animals to perform behaviors I’m interested in studying. I try to think of every challenge as an opportunity to more deeply understand your experimental system, model organism, and overall assumptions.

At a personal level, I tend to be very bursty in the way I work. I get deeply invested in a project and it becomes my world for a while. Then when I’ve accomplished my goal, or a deadline has passed, I find it difficult to get motivated to work for a little while after. I’m trying to get better at working more evenly and sustainably with a consistent daily routine.

What would be the next step in your research (or professional development)? 

I will be starting as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley next July, which will involve starting my own lab and teaching courses!

What would be your advice to others who may want to apply to the BRAIN F32 program?

I would recommend starting your materials early. The F32 was my first National Research Service Award (NRSA) application, and it caught me by surprise how much the application required. I would also recommend using the application as an opportunity to assemble a team of mentors who you can keep going back to for check-ins throughout your postdoc. It was really nice to have a formalized way to reach out and ask for a meeting with advisors who I wouldn’t necessarily have had a formal connection to otherwise.

Are there any specific relevant training and professional development opportunities that you find useful during the fellowship?

I found “The Next Generation of BRAIN Initiative Leaders: Making the Transition” workshop very helpful. This was my first workshop on transitioning to becoming a faculty member and I really enjoyed the format of the workshop that not only had talks but also made time for interacting with other trainees in breakout rooms. Being able to chat with other trainees made the experience more fun and less stressful.

I also think the BRAIN Initiative Meeting likely would have been a great professional development opportunity, but throughout my fellowship (2020-2022) the conference has been fully virtual, limiting in person interactions.

Fill in the blank: When I’m not working on a research project, I am…

Biking, playing ultimate frisbee, and reading.

Stay tuned for more highlights on BRAIN Initiative award recipients in some exciting, upcoming series on the BRAIN Blog