Anatomy of a Basic Scientist
These researchers, also referred to as basic scientists, may spend their entire careers looking for solutions to specific problems and searching for new pieces of fundamental knowledge. Each new discovery, says Chair of Physiological Sciences Gerald J. Pepe, PhD, adds a critical piece to the puzzle of human understanding.
“If it doesn’t first happen in the lab, it never gets to the patient,” says Dr. Pepe, who has been an EVMS faculty member and biomedical researcher for more than 30 years. “Every piece of information used in clinical medicine stems from scientific inquiry. You have to know the letters of the alphabet before you can read, and basic science gives us the letters, the building blocks, upon which clinical studies can be based.”
A Life of Questions
The field of basic scientific research is not for the faint of heart. From an educational standpoint, the training is arduous, requiring not only a PhD after graduate school but also an additional three to six years of post-doctoral training — the equivalent of a medical residency — in the scientist’s chosen area of inquiry. In the early days of training, 60- to 70-hour work weeks are not unusual.
But despite its rigors, the profession also tends to inspire passion. As a reproductive endocrinologist, Dr. Pepe has devoted his research life to fetal development and the role of estrogen in pregnancy. Even when he served as EVMS’ Provost and Dean, Dr. Pepe devoted significant time every week to bench research. He says the key to success in the field is an innate love of learning.
“It is a wonderful thing to have a job where you can ask questions and then design a study to get some answers,” says Dr. Pepe, whose work with baboons has been extensively published. “I wanted to know ‘Why does delivery happen when it does? Why is it nine months? And when it isn’t nine months, what has gone wrong?’ What usually happens when we set out to answer these kinds of questions is that the answer we get is not the one we were expecting. And that may lead us down a whole new path.”
EVMS Interim Chair of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology Julie A. Kerry, PhD, who chose to follow the research path at the age of 12, says the word “calling” is an apt description of her job. Not only was she fascinated by biological systems, but she was also attracted by the prospect of changing lives for the better.
“I specifically wanted to go into biomedical research because I had the idea that if a discovery of mine eventually led to a drug or a new approach to cure a disease, it would impact a large number of people versus medicine where you typically just treat one patient at a time,” she says. “In a medical setting, most basic scientists are focused on the mechanisms that contribute to the onset of a specific disease process,” says Associate Dean for Research William J. Wasilenko, PhD. Sometimes those reasons are personal, such as a family member who has the disease in question; sometimes they are more altruistic like Dr. Kerry’s approach; and sometimes they are merely the product of burning curiosity.
Although a researcher’s laboratory focus may be narrow — Dr. Kerry, for instance, has spent years studying the devastating effects of cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection — it is rarely boring. Dr. Kerry says every new discovery also sparks new ideas, triggers new questions and broadens the possibilities for further study.
“My colleagues and I are always learning something new about the virus we are studying, and our results are constantly pushing us in different directions, using different tools and techniques,” she says. “It is one of the coolest parts of my job.”
The job can vary outside the lab, too. Like Dr. Kerry, Dr. Wasilenko and Dr. Pepe, many basic scientists are also passionate teachers, splitting their research time with time spent training a new generation of basic scientists and medical students interested in biomedical research.
Because individual research projects are often funded by grant money, either from entities like the National Institutes of Health or private companies, a scientist may also need to be a wordsmith, able to make a compelling case for the value of his or her work on grant applications and in research papers submitted for publication.
However personal his or her individual motivations may be, a basic scientist does not work in a vacuum. Each laboratory breakthrough opens the door for translational medicine, the shifting of answers from the research bench to the patient’s bedside — a process for which collaboration is critical.
Working closely with colleagues in clinical medicine and other disciplines, EVMS basic scientists have made significant strides in diagnoses and treatments of diabetes, cancer, virology and reproductive medicine, among others.
“The old image of a mad scientist confined in the lab alone is not the way biomedical research is conducted anymore,” Dr. Wasilenko says. Instead, today’s scientists work in multidisciplinary teams made up not only of students and other basic scientists, but also researchers at other universities and in other disciplines including medicine, engineering, physics and computer science.
When answers are found, it is also the job of a biomedical researcher to let the medical community know about them through publication and presentation. “That is why they call us professors, after all,” Dr. Pepe says. “Part of our job is to profess what we have learned.”
Depending on their area of study and their level of funding, a basic scientist may produce as few as one or as many as three or four papers a year. While the publication of one’s findings in a respected professional journal involves intense peer scrutiny — Dr. Pepe says every one of his more than 150 published papers has been improved by the process — it is an important validation that can influence the ability to garner future research funding.
Those research dollars may, in turn, lead to new discoveries, new collaborations and new publications. And then the process begins again, spurring the local economy with the need for raw materials and the creation of new lab tech jobs and enhancing the reputation of the medical school.
But the ultimate beneficiaries of bench research are patients, whose lives are impacted daily by answers to questions first asked by a basic scientist.
“The rewards of being able to contribute to the greater body of knowledge so far outweigh the hard work,” Dr. Pepe says. “You ask questions and meet people and put your heads together, and then suddenly you have a new drug, and you have contributed to that. ‘Re-search,’ after all, means to search again. The information is out there. We are just trying to uncover it.”