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HHMI's Outpost in Moscow

Summary

HHMI's representative in Russia, Laura Kennedy, has helped the Institute's international research scholars in the region to overcome a wide range of problems.

Laura Kennedy

"I like challenges," says Laura Kennedy, the American who represents HHMI in Moscow. The phone rings in her busy office, which is the Institute's only foreign outpost. "Allyo! Da!" she says cheerfully as she picks it up. She answers some questions in rapid, fluent Russian. She seems very much at ease.

As program coordinator for HHMI's 42 international research scholars in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, Laura helps these scientists overcome a wide range of financial and bureaucratic obstacles. She has to interpret HHMI's policies in radically different cultural and political contexts, as well as cope with the ever-changing regulations of four national governments.

During her 18 months in Moscow, Laura has dealt with an array of sensitive problems, many of them involving the importation of foreign-made lab equipment. Others were even more delicate, concerning the use of the equipment, for example, or the purpose of that part of the HHMI grant money allocated to "shared resources." As one scholar put it, his director interpreted the term "shared" to mean "money to go to the director." Laura straightened this out tactfully, to everyone's satisfaction.

Always in the background there is the challenge of everyday living in Russia. Last summer, for instance, her apartment building had no hot water for several weeks, a common problem. As temperatures began to drop last year in the fall, "at least a half dozen scientific institutes that I visited in Moscow and Kiev had no heat at all because funds were not available to pay the heating bills," she says.

On the other hand, Russian food stores are well stocked now and conditions in the city have vastly improved since she and her husband, Chris Boffey, moved to Moscow in 1994. They originally went to Russia so that Laura could do research for her Ph.D. in political science from Emory University. (She is still finishing up her dissertation.) Since her research fellowship provided for student housing, "we lived in a Russian dormitory room for the first four months of our marriage," Laura says.

Laura herself cannot quite explain her fascination with Russia. Born in Chicago, she is of Irish and Italian descent, without a trace of Slavic background. She entered Northwestern University just after Reagan was elected, when there was much talk about the "evil empire," and "I became very interested," she says. "I wanted to know what all the fuss was about." She started to study the language, then Russian literature, and graduated with a double major in political science and Russian.

She also worked part-time for Northwestern's Slavic department, which is how she met her husband. "He was a first-year Russian student, and I was his Russian tutor," Laura says. Their romance blossomed several years later, when he was in law school at the University of Maryland and Laura was earning a master's degree in Russian studies at Georgetown University. They were married right after he took the bar exam, moving to Moscow four days later. "I dragged him to Russia," Laura says. Once in Moscow, Chris studied Russian law and is now very busy as a specialist in Russian real estate and construction law, benefiting from the capital's remarkable building boom.

Discussions in Laura's office are frequently interrupted by phone calls and visits from the scholars. The first visitor this day is Stanislav Kolesnikov of the Institute of Cell Biophysics in Pushchino, "a science town about two hours from here," he says. Kolesnikov has come for help with a financial problem. "I am going to buy some equipment for my lab," he explains, "and I need to find a specific firm to buy it from. I'm also trying to manage salaries for the next period of time for my staff."

How many people are in his lab? "Currently, three persons," Kolesnikov replies. "There used to be seven scientists there, but four of my old staff are now in the United States, where they have good positions." This is quite typical of the situation in Russian science, he says. "Most of the people aged 30-45 have left Russia already. The mechanism is very simple: The young people get some education here, they train in our labs, and then they leave Russia for Western science--just when they have some experience and could do good work. This is not good for our country."

Kolesnikov observes that "it's very difficult to manage a working lab in Russia now. We have no problem hiring young people, but if you have young people, you have to manage their experiments. You need equipment, drugs, chemicals, electronics, computers, space, and so on. It takes a lot of money because current prices in Russia are like your listed prices, even more, because many types of equipment are not manufactured in Russia so you need to buy American equipment, German equipment, Japanese equipment, and it's much more expensive than it was before."

His own field is sensory perception, Kolesnikov says. He has worked primarily on the visual system but is now concentrating on the perception of taste. "I am going to continue my investigation in Russia," he declares. "The Hughes grant made it possible for me to buy modern electronics--patch clamps, modern computers, chemicals--so I can provide world-level experiments currently. (The grant is for $28,000 a year for five years; more than a third of it goes for equipment.) But we have enough for only two persons, including me, so I need approximately two or three grants like this."

The next visitor, Vasily Zagranichny of the Pushchino branch of the Shemyakin Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry, says he visits HHMI's office "no less than once a month." He asks questions about his accounts and about procedures for buying equipment. "Laura has helped me to solve many problems," he says.

Zagranichny and his colleagues recently synthesized a small protein that interacts with key proteins in the mammalian visual system. Then he saw that this protein interacts with zinc ions. "Zinc--it's a new English word for me," he says. "Zinc. Yes. There are very large amounts of zinc deposits in the mammalian retina, and nobody knew why. We've shown that the protein sequence conforms to the zinc finger motif, which is found in DNA-binding proteins. So I think this finding will open a large field of research."

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Jim Keeley
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