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Spies's most gripping single molecule story so far involves the bacterial helicase RecBCD running on a sort of home-built DNA drag strip, a long stretch of nucleic acids laid out so Spies could insert recombination hot spots. Using laser optical trapping and single-molecule fluorescent markers, Spies recorded RecBCD barreling down the DNA track, pausing at a hot spot and then changing speed. The helicase did this by switching the lead positions of its two driving molecule subunits, which run at different speeds. Spies described it as a “molecular throttle.” A colleague described this story as stunning.
But Spies has another story, her own, that is equally gripping. She entered Russian science in the mid-1990s, a time when research in the former Soviet Union was in freefall. Her first publication in a Russian journal was a mark of achievement, according to an outside observer familiar with post-Soviet Russian science who noted that any publication at this chaotic time was “an indication of a strong desire and determination to do science.”
That determination led Spies into scientific research in three languages—in her native Russian as a student at St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University, in Japanese for her doctorate at Osaka University, and in English, first as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Davis, and since 2005 in her own laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. With this long prelude, Spies' independent career is taking off at last.
There is a third story here. It goes beyond the science or any one scientist. It is the story of what happens to newly launched researchers like Spies in their early careers. It's a story that worries the scientific advisors of HHMI who see many promising investigators heading for a career-deadening crunch. Just as their independent research and their scientific imaginations are supposed to be taking off, they run into professional prudence.
Researchers serve a long apprenticeship, laboring for years in other people's labs, first as graduate students and then as postdoctoral fellows before the opportunity to strike out on their own as principal investigators or PIs. Hired for their first tenure track faculty positions, new PIs are usually greeted with generous institutional start-up funds, protected research time, and “free” lab space. But within a few years, the grim reality of funding sets in. To keep it all going—labs, students, equipment, materials, overhead, and their own salaries—researchers must bring home the bacon, generally in the form of big, multiyear federal grants. With so much on the line, the tendency is to play it safe to win those grants. Mentors advise young colleagues to leave their grand, outside-the-mainstream projects for another day and to write up measured, incremental proposals that approach worthy scientific goals in precise steps.
Photo: L. Brian Stauffer