The four Yorkshiremen at NIH…

I said it. It didn’t mean to slip out, but it did. Well, I can’t cap the genie back in the bottle, can I? So here it is: “When I was at the NIH…”

When I was a young student, my Ph.D. mentor was fresh from her postdoctoral studies at that famous group of institutes, the National Institutes of Health–NIH. When she wanted to impress upon us how quickly research moved (compared to our snail-paced and marginal research), she would always begin with that statement: “When I was at the NIH…” Being respectful students, we would always groan and roll our eyes nod and agree. Yes, it must have been wonderful to be at the NIH. But I swore to myself that if I ever have my own lab, I would not go around ranting and raving like the Monty Python sketch with the four Yorkshiremen, “When I was at the NIH…”

Well guess what? It was a wonderful place for a postdoc! When my time came to look for a postdoctoral position, I was heavily influenced by the stories of all night protein purifications, massive P32 labeling experiments with no holds barred. It sounded like a dream place. After all, in Israel we often had to plan experiments weeks in advance because orders for reagents could easily take 3 weeks to arrive from the US.

So I lined up 5-6 interviews for positions at NIH. In one interview (now remember, this was back in 1997)–actually for the lab I ended up choosing– the mentor was talking to me and said: “aside from the common reagents like media, serum restriction enzymes, DNA purification kits, etc., each postdoc has about $1000/month for additional reagents”. I think my tongue was hanging out of my mouth when he said this, and he must have been somewhat taken aback, because he immediately spoke again to allay any concerns: “But if that isn’t enough, we can always find ways to purchase more”. I was sold.

So I did my postdoctoral research at NIH. And it was wonderful. All the reagents, equipment, collaborations. Microscopes galore. All you have to do is be motivated to succeed!

But now in my own lab it finally slipped out. A momentary lapse. A lazy-style experiment. And there it was: “When I was at the NIH…”

Well guess what? I have a former student now doing a postdoc at NIH. So when physicists debate the “particle or wave model”–I’m sure it goes in waves.

The NIH-centric model

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to The four Yorkshiremen at NIH…

  1. Did you get given the poster when you left, Steve? Think I got one of those and the t-shirt.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Austin- it looks like my reply to you (via Blackberry) did not go through- so in brief, I actually received a very nice aerial photo of NIH- there are more trees in the area than all of Nebraska…

      • Yes, I used to live down in Bethesda East of the Rockville Pike, so I used to walk in (to Building 10) and back across as much landscaped stuff as I could manage to traverse.

        I think I took the cartoon map in preference to the aerial photo.

        PS Didn’t realise Nebraska was a tree-free zone…!

        • Steve Caplan says:

          We used to spend hours walking the “Rock Creek Park”; about 20 miles of north-south woods from DC north to Gaithersburg.Nebraska is entirely treeless, but let’s just say one comes to appreciate Arbor Day…

  2. stephenemoss says:

    Steve – your account reminds me of my post-doc years at the ICRF in London back in the late ’80s, probably the closest working environment to NIH that we have in the UK. There is an energy level in such places that is addictive and intoxicating. But try telling that to the kids today…….

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Ironically, I almost did my PhD at ICRF, before deciding to stay in J’lem. But yes, there is a very professional and science-serious atmosphere that is infectious. And they just don’t believe us…

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    “When I was in marketing…”

    …I visited the NIH campus with the local sales rep for the famous “tent show”, which involved cramming ourselves (and our robotic instrument) into a freezing cold, massive marquee, along with hundreds of other vendors, to be grilled by the resident scientists. It rained, and the water ran down slope to our end of the tent, soaked into the temporary carpets and then our feet, and we were miserably cold and wet all day. It was still fun, though – there’s a real buzz around the place! I then went to meet up with a friend of mine from our PhD days who was doing her postdoc in an NIH lab. The lab was packed to the gills with people and kit, and felt (to me) very cramped and claustrophobic – but there was still that buzz around the place!

    At my PhD institute, lots of the PIs (including mine) seemed to have spent time at “the Hutch” in Seattle, and were beginning to send their trainees there too. Something to do with the similarities between the Seattle and Glasgow climates, no doubt, as well as “the wave” you mentioned. However, the only two trainees from our lab who moved to North America ended up in Vancouver and San Diego, to the disappointment of our former boss. He keeps promising to visit anyway, and take me sailing, but this hasn’t materialised yet!

  4. MGG says:

    Please check out Neale Woods..

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Okay- I exaggerated. There are trees in southeastern Nebraska, particularly along the Missouri and Platte Rivers, and they include the beautiful Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods.

      Last time we went to Neale woods was several years ago immediately after a snowstorm, hoping to enjoy the woods in the the snow. It was shortly after Dick Cheney shot a fellow hunter. In any case, the woods were empty and we were looking at rabbit tracks when suddenly shots rang out. Very close by. With military training I had my family hit the ground and lie in the snow as we crawled toward a more sheltered area from the ridge we were on (and exposed). We made it back to the parking lot, and were never sure exactly where the hunting was in relation to the supposed “protected” forest. Needless to say, our kids do not want to return there…

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