Persistence: the essence of science in a nutshell

In 2015, I wrote a blog that was published in The Guardian titled “Can we expect a MIRAcle for biomedical researchers in the US?” In this blog I outlined the radical new plan of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) institute to develop a new grant system for funding its investigators. To date, most of the NIH grant system is designed so that scientists are required to propose a highly focused research plan in considerable detail. The new system set up by NIGMS seeks to provide researchers more freedom and flexibility in their research, and although it requires an outline of the major research objectives, there is more emphasis on the researcher’s achievements (for established investigators, at least), and encouragement for researchers to chase bold and exciting new findings—even if they are tangential to the initial research goals—provided that they are scientifically sound.

From the moment I heard of this new system, I realized that this was exactly what I had always dreamed of—a sort of carte blanche to pursue interesting scientific findings, with few strings attached. My lab has always had a major focus on what we call endocytic membrane trafficking, with a special interest in endosomes (tiny membrane-bound compartments into which receptors are sent after internalization from the plasma membrane) and anything related to endosomes and their function. But over the years, we have branched into a variety of “offshoots” and projects that are peripherally or laterally related—often at great investment of time (and money) and through collaborations. This includes cell cycle and mitosis, mitochondrial fusion/fission and homeostasis, regulation of the actin cytoskeleton, some signal transduction and immunology, structural biology and super-resolution imaging, as well as a longer-term new project exploring the mechanisms of centrosome duplication and primary cilia biogenesis. I have always had nagging feelings of guilt in pursuing exciting new findings, knowing that I am not explicitly addressing the “specific aims” on one grant or another. But as I laid out in my recent book, Today’s Curiosity is Tomorrow’s Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research,” the most significant discoveries over the past 150 years in biomedical science have often arisen as a result of such “non-targeted” research.

When this new grant mechanism was first announced, I decided that I MUST try to obtain this type of grant—that it was exactly what I had always wanted: the freedom to pursue exciting new findings, even if they were not exactly what I initially set out to study. After nearly 7 years of working toward this goal, I am delighted to say that I have now received funding from this R35/MIRA grant mechanism for 5 long years. This was my third submission, the first being in the initial trial round where only a small cadre of established investigators were supported. It’s not as though research life has stopped during these past 5 years—I had other (traditional) grants during this time, and eligibility for the new R35/MIRA form of grant is restricted to a rather short window when one of the traditional grants was set to expire.

My key take-home message—aside from expressing my own gratitude to the NIGMS and my delight at finally obtaining this award—is that success in science is all about persistence. And it doesn’t matter whether this is a grant or a research project. Research is about being in it for the long haul; the marathon rather than the sprint. And even if I had to hobble to the finish line, it was worth every effort.

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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