Asthma Researcher Makes Rare Leap from Graduate School to UCSF Principal Investigator and Professor

Most young scientists fresh out of graduate school are content to begin a post-doctoral fellowship, working for an established faculty member. But for Christopher Allen, PhD, award-winning research in asthma meant the fast-track onto UCSF’s faculty.

After making a rare beeline from graduate school to running his own lab, Allen joined the UCSF faculty on Nov. 1 as an investigator with the Cardiovascular Research Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Anatomy, with a joint appointment in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and as a member of the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center.

Allen’s quick leap onto the tenure track stems from his early research focus on immunology and asthma — he has experienced the disease firsthand and as a patient became familiar with the limitations of treatment.

Asthma prevalence is increasing, and the disease has its greatest impact on children and the poor. Allen uses the latest methods to vibrantly image immune cells crawling under the microscope, tracking their interactions in the lungs in real time. His goal is to identify and ultimately to interrupt the chain of events that triggers the lung airways to react and narrow during bouts of inflammatory asthma.

The innovative research was made possible by the UCSF Fellows Program.

Under the auspices of the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research, the UCSF Fellows Program offers young researchers “principal investigator” status, laboratory space and resources to hire staff and obtain equipment needed to lead their own research right out of graduate school.

Aspirants from around the country vie for selection, and the program has few rivals worldwide.

For five years, young scientists who are selected are free from any professional obligations unrelated to their research. Allen entered the program after earning his doctoral degree from the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program and working in the laboratory of UCSF immunologist Jason Cyster, PhD. Allen was the first UCSF Fellow selected to work on a particular disease, asthma, with support from the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center.

Allen’s principal investigator status as the Sandler-Newmann Foundation’s UCSF Fellow in Asthma Research allowed him to apply for grants, and in September he received a highly competitive NIH Director’s New Innovator award.

“For me the UCSF Fellows Program was a path that allowed me to propose and pursue ideas and projects independently when I was young, and when I could take advantage of that youthful energy as I focused on these research goals,” he said.