Science in isolation

A recent invitation and very pleasant visit at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (UOHSC) served as a stark reminder of the degree of isolation that I have been facing on a daily basis since moving to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) 8 years ago. Both campuses share a number of common features: 1) they are small-medium in size (as US medical centers go), 2) they are state universities, 3) they represent the citizens of small states (Oklahoma- about 3.7 million, and Nebraska 1.8 million), 4) Oklahoma and Omaha are extremely widespread cities, each sporting populations of around 1 million in the greater metropolitan regions, and 4) both universities serve large rural populations.

Of course, there are major differences, with Oklahoma City (and the state) being rich in oil, and Omaha being a hub for insurance/telecommunications.

One difference that I perceived was that despite the similarities in size, OUHSC had a distinctly larger proportion of researchers working in my chosen field–cell biology and protein trafficking in the endocytic pathways. It’s not hard to beat UNMC, because by my reckoning, my lab is really the only one on campus devoted to this type of basic research. Now I would be exaggerating to say that other labs don’t dabble or collaborate with us on some of these research questions, but essentially, we are the only ones to focus primarily on these types of studies. At OUHSC I was pleased to meet a handful of such researchers.

This was one of my initial concerns in coming out to Omaha as a new faculty member; after the tremendous critical mass of pure cell biologists at NIH–where I did my post-doctoral studies–would I be able to find an atmosphere conducive to the type of research that I do?

When I first visited Omaha as a faculty candidate in 2002, I wasn’t sure. The medical center had a microscopy core facility with a single older model confocal microscope. While I was promised a laboratory in the new Durham Research Center (where I now have a lab)–built with private money donated by local philanthropist Charles Durham, the 8 story building was still in early construction stages and the temporary space offered to me looked like something out of a science museum. Fortunately, I was able put these temporary issues aside and project a little into the future; today there is now a second Durham Research Center (II), built again largely with funds graciously provided by the same Mr. Durham. And I have my own personal confocal microscope.

So where am I going with this? What’s the problem?

Who said there was a problem?

I wouldn’t define it as a problem, but given the lack of researchers in my field, there is a degree of isolation. Des Moines, Iowa is the nearest city–about a 2 h drive, but smaller than Omaha. Kansas City is larger, and there are some good labs and institutes there, but that’s a 3 h drive. The next orbital includes Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago, St. Louis–all full day drives or an hour’s flight.

Does it matter? Perhaps less than I would have predicted. There is e-mail, the telephone, FAX, video conferences, Skype–you name it, technology has it. Collaborations with researchers around the US and across the globe has never been easier. If an expert in actin is needed and not on campus–then collaborate with one at UCL in London. It’s not as though I’m as lonely as poor “Lonesome George,” in the Galapagos. It is also pretty easy to get to meetings–after all, being “in isolation” doesn’t mean being under quarantine–although I sometimes find it hard to take on too much travel and be away from my family.

There are also advantages. I spent my childhood in a house where there were no tools. My parents were barely capable of changing a light bulb, not to mention changing a tire or oiling a rusty hinge. I picked up a little know-how in the army, but my “repair skills” have really developed in dealing with my microscope, as a service technician needs to come in from Minneapolis, Chicago or St. Louis when we have problems. Even for diagnostic issues, I am becoming adept. After all, the technicians need to diagnose with me on the phone, send the suspected necessary parts by FedEX, and then fly in once the parts arrive to do the repair work. So learning to manage minor issues on my own has become necessary to keep the scope running for the lab.

So how do I feel “in isolation” 8 years later? Nothing in life is ever utopian, and every place has its advantages and disadvantages. I can only laugh and recall my  impression of Omaha and UNMC 9 years ago on my first visit. As I was leaving the department after my first visit–certain that I would never end up here–an administrator from the office handed me a packet with information about the city and a map–just as I was about to be taken to the airport. Stuck with this packet in my hands at the airport, I searched for a trash bin to lessen my load. As fate would have it, I couldn’t find one nearby, and ended up stuffing the papers into my backpack before going through security.

The map squashed in the backpack was the one we eventually used to chart the houses on the market and buy our home.

Need I say more?


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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