Other labs lost

By Alison McCook

When Peter Cariani was a teenager, both of his parents died. So as an adult starting his career, "I had a fairly fatalistic view towards life," says the scientist, now 51. "I never expected to make much money, but I thought there would be a niche for me that was sustainable and would help me provide for my family and put my kids through college."

As a graduate student at Binghamton University (then SUNY Binghamton), Cariani pursued lofty questions such as how biology differs from artificial intelligence. Upon graduating, he couldn't find labs doing anything close to theoretical biology, so in 1990, he accepted a postdoc in the lab of esteemed auditory physiologist Nelson Kiang at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute, affiliated with MIT and Harvard Medical School. "I wasn't an auditory person,"...

In 1993, Cariani received an R03 (small) grant - $30,000 per year for two years - which covered part of his salary. Soon after, Cariani applied for a (now discontinued) R29 grant, for first-time grantees. The application contained "spectacular results," he says, but since the grant was scored close to the cutoff (the point below which all applications were funded), it required more discussion among reviewers. While he waited almost a year to hear about his R29 application, he was jockeying for limited resources in a high-profile, over-crowded lab (he was working in a 3 square-meter space), and he began to feel demoralized. "It was like being on Survivor," he recalls. "You're in a situation where it's really beyond your control, and your ability to stay in the game is at stake. And it's in the hands of unknown people, with unknown agendas." Then, he got the grant: $70,000 per year in direct costs for five years. This promoted him to assistant professor, technically a tenure-track position at Harvard Medical School.

Cariani was relieved to get the grant, but because of his lab's tight quarters, he started looking for other positions. Around 1998, he began using his R29 to work with Mark Praymo at Mass General, on how sound is processed by the brain. In 2000, he applied to convert his R29 to an R01 and continue his work with Praymo; it was rejected. Cariani can't even recall if it was scored. He kept trying for funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and he finally obtained a nonrenewable two-year grant from the NSF. That grant ran out in December 2003, and the following spring his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

He needed something stable. So in 2004 he joined the lab of Eric Frank at Tufts, who was using pharmaceutical money to study spinal cord regeneration and needed an electrophysiologist. "It was a godsend, because things were looking very bleak at that point," says Cariani. The lab began producing good results (some made their way into a Nature Neuroscience article published online March 23; Cariani's papers have generated more than 300 citations via ISI as of March 2008).

"I'm so cynical now, [rejection] is what I expect," Cariani says. "Everyone I've talked to has stories like this."

Then, in 2006, things again fell apart. The pharmaceutical funder (Biogen) cut its support, and Frank's R01, which had been funded for five to six cycles, was rejected for renewal. This was a surprise, Cariani recalls, given that Frank's lab was doing clinically relevant, translational work. Cariani's experiences have left him frustrated and bitter. "I'm so cynical now, [rejection] is what I expect," he says. "Everyone I've talked to has stories like this."

Frank's lab could reapply, but the process might take one year, a lag that a small lab (around six scientists) couldn't weather. One scientist left for industry. Another moved elsewhere in clinical research. In September, 2006, the lab ran out of the money it needed to sustain Cariani's $60,000 salary, and he left. It was a sad moment. "I would be there if we had gotten funded." He considered doing a postdoc. For several months, he collected unemployment checks.

Now, Cariani consults for a foundation that's interested in funding innovative science, such as consciousness research. Intellectually, it's satisfying work, he says, but he can't shake the feeling that he was a "failure" as an academic. "I'm angry more than anything else," he says. People who are considering science as a career see how everyone is struggling, he says - could that discourage future generations from entering the field? The situation "is basically crippling the future of American science. My children see what I'm going through."

Jay Rothstein was at Jefferson University in Philadelphia, then moved to Amgen in Seattle. He had NIH funding when he left Jefferson, but the stress of the system did "play a role" in his decision, he says. He estimates that he was 90% dependent on soft money at Jefferson, and he weathered 18 months without NIH funding between 2003 and 2004, during which his department covered his salary and helped a little with his supplies. He had students and postdocs who were supported by their own NIH funding, so no one had to leave. (Several years before, he had had to let a technician go when a grant stopped.) Still, he "faced a huge amount of stress" worrying about grants, he recalls. "It never really has a period of stability." So when an opportunity at Amgen arose, along with the opportunity to move West, he took it. (Rothstein declined to say whether the move came with a salary increase.) "There was certainly a component of grant funding that I was uncomfortable with," he says. "I certainly would not go back at this point."

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?