Sequester Strains Science Researchers PDF Print
Sequester Strains Science Researchers
September 9, 2013

The billions of dollars in cuts to federal research funding earlier this year are prompting science researchers across the country to lay off researchers, close laboratories and scramble to find other sources of funding.

Researchers said the budget cuts, caused by across-the-board reductions known as sequestration, are threatening important scientific investigations and pushing young scientists out of the field. Those worries are compounded by the uncertainty of how much money will be available for research in the coming fiscal year, which could bring even deeper cuts.

Already this year, the dire warnings from research officials and higher education advocates about what sequestration would mean for research are beginning to play out. More than half of researchers who responded to a recent survey by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology said they either had laid off or expected to lay off researchers as the result of declining federal science funding. Large majorities of survey respondents also said they had seen their grant money decrease, experienced difficulty in obtaining new funding, and spent increasingly more time writing grant applications.

Sequestration this year cut the National Institutes of Health’s budget by $1.55 billion, forcing the agency to fund 703 fewer competitive research grants than it did in 2012.

One researcher affected by the cuts is Thomas Michel, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Harvard Medical School. Michel said he had to contract the size of his laboratory in the cardiovascular division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston after the NIH did not renew a grant that “would have easily been funded under the levels of support previously available.”

Without the approximately $250,000 in funding the grant would have provided, he said he had to reduce his research team from 10 to four people, laying off postdoctoral researchers, a graduate student, and a medical resident-in-training.

In some cases, sequestration is being blamed for the closure of entire laboratories. At the University of Chicago’s department of surgery, seven researchers lost their jobs after three small labs closed, according to Karl S. Matlin, professor of surgery and vice chairman of research.

The heads of two of the three laboratories that closed, Matlin said, had submitted grant proposals to the NIH that were ranked in the top fifth of submissions but were not funded because the cutoff had been reduced as a result of the sequester.

Matlin said he was denied funding for a similarly ranked grant proposal for approximately $300,000 that would have allowed his lab to study treatments for renal ischemia—the reduction of blood flow to the kidney after surgery or a traumatic injury that is not well-understood by scientists. Matlin’s lab remains open through other grants, but he had to lay off three people -- a lab technician, a postdoc, and an experienced assistant professor.

Matlin and others said they worried that the reductions in research funding -- and the uncertainty of money available for future years -- had already begun a brain drain in biomedical research.

“The real tragedy is that we are irreversibly losing good people. Young people don’t look at this as a desirable profession,” said Matlin, noting that one of the experienced researchers he laid off left the field for an office job at a medical association.

Michel, the Harvard professor, said that throughout his career he’s experienced cycles of growing and waning support from the NIH and other federal agencies, but the current funding situation -- with no clear relief on the horizon -- will have a long-term effect on the profession.

“I fear that we’re going to be losing a generation of bright young scientists who might take their talents in other directions,” he said. “I’m seeing it already in the choices that people make as they complete their clinical training now, but it’ll trickle down to people in graduate school and undergraduates.”

While the NIH represents the largest source of federal research funding, grants at other agencies have also been cut because of sequestration. The National Science Foundation, for instance, said that it expected to reduce the total number of new research grants by about 1,000 this year.

Researchers who rely on other sources of funding scattered throughout the federal government have also taken a hit. At Arkansas State University, about 30 researchers will be laid off by the end of October because grants from the Education Department and Defense Department were not renewed, according to John Pratte, dean of the College of Sciences and Mathematics.

Aside from pushing young scientists away from research, the reduction in federal funding also has the potential to create problems for those researchers trying to climb the ranks within academe. The increasing scarcity of federal funding opportunities may make it more difficult for faculty to obtain tenure, according to Jonathan S. Dordick, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  

“In the end, you’re weakening young faculty members’ ability to get their research off the ground, and in doing so, you’re potentially weakening their tenure case,” he said. “It’s tough enough anyway.”

Dordick said that RPI has not had to close any labs since the university’s overall level of federal research funding has remained constant this year. But, he said, as the NIH and other federal agencies award fewer grants, the university expects to reduce the number of researchers through attrition.

Beyond the loss in research funds, the uncertainty over how severely budgets will be cut in the coming years is creating problems on campuses, Dordick said.

“It really reduces the ability of faculty to plan,” he said. “It’s hard to do other things when you’re fighting to get any money into the laboratory.”

It’s not yet clear how much money federal agencies will have to fund research in the coming fiscal year that begins October 1, but it is possible that this year's budget cuts could continue or even deepen.

Unless Congress acts to stop it, the sequester will continue into the new fiscal year. However, while this year's sequester forced blunt, across-the-board cuts earlier this year, lawmakers now will have more flexibility on how they can distribute the cuts across federal agencies and programs. Still, the sequester for the coming fiscal year sets a cap on total discretionary spending that is below this year's level, so rearranging how reductions are distributed will be a high-stakes, zero-sum game. 

The House and Senate have each proposed budgets that are about $90 billion apart, so it appears unlikely that Congress will reach an agreement on how to fund the government before the October 1 deadline. Lawmakers are expected to immediately pass a stopgap spending measure that keeps the government running at the same level of funding, but they will still have to eventually find areas to cut under the requirements of the sequester. The negotiations will be further complicated by discussions about increasing the government's limit on borrowing money, the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department has said will run out this fall.

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New "Green" Pathogen Decontamination Technology From Rensselaer's Biotechnology Center PDF Print

New "Green" Pathogen Decontamination Technology From Rensselaer's Biotechnology Center

September 4, 2013

Rensselaer researchers have developed a one-step, wide-area application, environmentally-friendly treatment capable of highly effective bacterial spore coat permeation for decontamination.

Environmental spore contamination, such as intentionally released anthrax or other infectious diseases, is treated by fumigating the space with ethylene oxide, methyl bromide, or vaporized hydrogen peroxide, according to EPA guidelines. Hard surfaces are treated with bleach, chlorine dioxide, hydrogen peroxide, peroxyacetic acid, or paraformaldehyde. These decontaminants are not only environmentally hazardous, but require sealing off the area for a prolonged decontamination period. Decontaminant denaturants, like urea and SDS, are limited to local areas.


A new, enzyme-based decontamination approach has been developed by a team headed by Jonathan S. Dordick, Rensselaer's Vice President of Research and Howard P. Isermann Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, which offers milder and environmentally-friendly conditions for removal of spore pathogen, while acting rapidly to ensure decontamination within 24 hours of application.


The method is a single-step method for degrading the proteinaceous coat of pathogenic bacterial spores leaving them vulnerable to a number of germinating enzymes and/or lytic enzymes for rapid spore germination and killing.


More information about the technology and commercialization opportunities can be found here

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Leo Q. Wan Named Pew Scholar, Receives NSF CAREER Award PDF Print

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Leo Q. Wan Named Pew Scholar, Receives NSF CAREER Award

Biomedical Engineering Expert Recognized for Research Into the Impact of Cell Asymmetry on Human Development and Disease

August 13, 2013

Tissue engineering and stem cell expert Leo Q. Wan, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Additionally, Wan recently won a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We congratulate Dr. Wan for being selected as a Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences, an honor reserved for the most promising young faculty in the biomedical field,” said Rensselaer Provost Prabhat Hajela. “We are extremely proud of Leo for being named a Pew Scholar, as well as his recent CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, and we look forward to his continued development as a leading scholar and researcher. Leo’s recent recognitions are further evidence of the very high caliber of faculty we are attracting to Rensselaer.”

Wan received his bachelor’s degree in theoretical and applied mechanics and his master’s degree in fluid mechanics from the University of Science and Technology of China. He earned his doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from Columbia University. He served as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia before joining the Rensselaer faculty in 2011.

The Pew Scholar in Biomedical Sciences program is highly competitive, awarding recipients $240,000 over four years to pursue their projects without direction or restriction. Wan will use this funding to further his research on biomolecular processes of epithelial cell chirality, and investigate how organisms adopt consistent left-right positioning—or “handedness.” He aims to uncover the rules that govern left-right asymmetry in tissues and organs during development, and use this information to better understand genetic diseases and birth defects associated with asymmetry.

Wan’s recent NSF CAREER Award is titled “Biomechanics of Patterned Epithelial Chiral Morphogenesis.” He will use the five-year, $400,000 grant to employ a combination of micro-fabrication, live cell imaging, molecular assay, traction force measurement, and mathematical modeling toward his goal of understanding and detailing the impact of cell mechanics of “handedness” on development and disease. The CAREER Award is given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers and is one of NSF’s most competitive awards, placing emphasis on high-quality research and novel education initiatives.

A dynamic young voice in the field of biotechnology and biomedical engineering, Wan has been honored by several other organizations for his research. This year he was recognized with an American Heart Association Scientist Development Grant, the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering Conference Rising Star from the Biomedical Engineering Society, and the Young Investigator Award from the Frontiers in Bioengineering Workshop.

For additional information Wan’s research at Rensselaer, visit:

  • Wan Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Morphogenesis

Molecular Biophysics Expert Catherine Royer Joins Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute PDF Print

Molecular Biophysics Expert Catherine Royer Joins Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

 August 6, 2013

Catherine Royer, an expert in molecular biophysics, has joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a Constellation Chair in Biocomputation and Bioinformatics, and Professor in the Department of Biology in the School of Science. Royer is currently director of the Centre de Biochimie Structurale in Montpellier, France. She will join Rensselaer this month.

“Dr. Royer is a leading world expert in the fields of biological fluorescence, protein thermodynamics, and high-pressure biophysics. Her investigations into the effects of high pressure on proteins have allowed for biomaterials characterization that will lead to new advances in the pharmaceutical industry,” said Rensselaer Provost Prabhat Hajela. She joins computation expert Professor Angel Garcia and protein structure expert Professor George Makhadtaze in the Biocomputation and Bioinformatics Constellation. “I am excited by the degree of complimentarity in their research interests and strengths – we look forward to new and significant advances in research and teaching in this area at Rensselaer.”

Royer’s research seeks to understand the physical mechanisms by which biological molecules work. She has a particular interest in the mechanisms at play as DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA – with particular attention to a group of transcription factors called nuclear receptors – and in the folding of proteins that have been synthesized by the ribosome.

“Molecular biophysics is trying to understand how biological molecules work – the real physical mechanisms of action and control that occur as the molecule works,” said Royer. “In biological molecules, what’s interesting is that this sequence of events has been subject to the pressure of natural selection. Biology, life or death, hangs on very little energy, and, if a molecule behaves in a particular way, you must know that it was necessary for the organism to survive.”

Royer is an expert in the use of fluctuation microscopy, a technique that allows her to gather quantitative data on protein interactions in live cells.

“We are able to see where in a cell the proteins are interacting and how much they’re interacting,” Royer said. “That spatial information is very important, and it’s very difficult to obtain.”

Her work has included studies of estrogen receptors, a target for breast cancer research; retinoid receptors, which have been linked to leukemia; and the Rev-ErbA alpha receptor, implicated in type 2 diabetes.

“Understanding how these receptors work is critical. If we can understand how they work, we can develop drugs that modulate the way they work to our benefit,” Royer said.

Royer first joined the Centre de Biochimie Structurale, in Montpellier, France, in 1996 as a visiting director of research. She has served as director of the center since 2007. Royer earned her doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a licence in biochemistry from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, and a general academic studies degree in natural sciences from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie.

“My work is somewhere between chemistry, physics, and biology, and I was really attracted by the interdisciplinary nature of research, and the institute-wide support for interdisciplinary research at Rensselaer,” said Royer.

Constellations are multidisciplinary teams of senior faculty, rising faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates at Rensselaer. Each constellation includes several star researchers in a particular area. Each is designed to help Rensselaer attract and retain exceptional researchers, educate students in socially important and emerging areas of research, and achieve global impact.

Professor Susan Gilbert Receives $2 Million NIH MERIT Award PDF Print

Long-term grant recognizes a legacy of outstanding research contributions

July 25, 2013

Susan Gilbert, professor and head of the Department of Biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been awarded a National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council National Institutes of Health (NIH) Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) Award, a recognition of the high quality of her research contributions over time. The MERIT Award offers long-term grant support to investigators of proven research competence and productivity and is expected to facilitate creative, innovative research that will have an exceptional impact on the field.

“Susan is to be congratulated for a very significant and rare achievement in earning an NIH MERIT award,” said Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer. “It’s a well-earned recognition of the long-standing, extremely high quality of her research. The award provides her the freedom to explore cutting-edge scientific ideas in ways that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. The National Institutes of Heath are to be commended for working to enable their researchers to seek paradigm-shifting breakthroughs.” 

The MERIT grant will support Gilbert’s continuing research of kinesins, a class of molecular motors that ferry cargo along the cytoskeleton of a cell. The overall goal of her research proposal is to understand how the mechanochemistry of kinesin motors underlies their ability to promote intracellular transport, generation of cell polarity, and remodeling of the microtubule cytoskeleton for cell division, cell differentiation, and morphogenesis during human development. Her work could shed light on diverse pathologies that have been linked to defects in kinesins, including cancer, ciliopathies, neuropathies, and birth defects. Gilbert’s research contributes to the School of Science interdisciplinary science theme of “biomedical science and applications.”

“NIGMS selected Dr. Gilbert for a MERIT award in recognition of her pioneering work on microtubule motor proteins, which has set the standard for other researchers in the field,” said Joe Gindhart, Ph.D., the program director who manages Gilbert’s NIGMS grant. “Her work has the potential to enhance our understanding of how motor proteins work to segregate chromosomes, build cilia and move organelles in nerve cells, and to help explain how defects in motor protein function contribute to cancer, neurological diseases, and other conditions.”

The MERIT award includes an initial award of about $2 million over five years, accompanied by the opportunity of funding for an additional three to five years. “I am thrilled to receive the NIH MERIT Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which has funded my research program since 1996,” said Gilbert. “The overarching goal of my research program is to understand how molecular motors generate force and to apply this insight to understand their roles in cell organization and function in normal and in diseased states. This award will allow us to continue this important fundamental research and to pursue higher risk scientific questions to define the relationships between kinesin structure, mechanochemistry, and function.”

Gilbert received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and a doctorate in cell biology from Dartmouth College. Her research focuses on cellular movements, and the molecular motors that drive these movements to better understand cellular function and dysfunctions. She performed much of her early research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. She completed her postdoctoral research at Pennsylvania State University. Gilbert received an NIH Career Development Award through the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Gilbert is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a member of the Biophysical Society serving as a member of Council and chair of the membership committee, a member of the American Society for Cell Biology, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She served on the editorial boards for the Biophysical Journal, Journal of Biological Chemistry, Nanomedicine, and Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine.

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