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Perspective: An Auxiliary (Research) Engine

CREDIT: Frank Flack (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

In the current research environment, with job opportunities and funding curtailed because of the economy, it is sometimes necessary to attain your goals through indirect means -- or by what I will refer to as an "auxiliary engine." Below are some examples from my own experiences to indicate how this may be employed.

I had nothing but wind to power my boat, so I struggled for the next hour, finally reaching the dock with a sense of relief and a new appreciation for the value of an auxiliary engine.

A real auxiliary engine

During my summers in medical school, I worked as a research assistant at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine. There was an unspoken rule at the laboratory that we would work extra hard on rainy and cloudy days and save some time on the sunny days to go sailing. I rented a Bull's Eye sailboat in nearby Southwest Harbor and acquired some proficiency as a "fair weather sailor." It was a popular area for sailing and as I gained the courage to venture farther from shore, I derived a sense of security from the number of boats around me.

However, on one August day with the harbor far in the distance, the idyllic weather suddenly turned. The sky darkened, the wind gusted and swirled, and peals of thunder boomed. The boats around me lowered their sails, started their auxiliary engines, and headed home. I had nothing but wind to power my boat, so I struggled for the next hour, finally reaching the dock with a sense of relief and a new appreciation for the value of an auxiliary engine.

A vocational auxiliary engine

Dan Albert (CREDIT: University of Washington Eye Research Institute)

While in medical school, I became close friends with a dental student who had a passion for birds. His interest in ornithology, in fact, far exceeded his interest in dentistry. His original intention had been to become a graduate student in ornithology, but as he learned of the narrow opportunities in the field, the difficulties in getting a job, and the limited salaries offered, he adopted an alternative plan. He saw a career in dentistry as another way -- an auxiliary engine -- to drive his passion for studying birds. His plan worked out well. He practiced dentistry in a small town and took frequent and prolonged vacations studying birds, from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. He wrote articles for ornithology journals and published his photographs in Audubon and National Geographic. Throughout his long career, he tolerated dentistry but was fulfilled by his work in ornithology.

Applying funding from "Study A" to fund "Study B"

Some years ago, I received a grant from a large pharmaceutical company to determine the mechanism by which one of their products, a prostaglandin used in the treatment of glaucoma, made the color of the iris darker. This was a project that fit well with my own research interest and goals. While we were carrying out our laboratory studies, ophthalmologists noticed that this product also made eyelashes grow. There were anecdotal reports that it promoted hair growth as well. Since my university had a colony of balding stump-tailed male macaques that had been used in previous hair-restoration studies, the pharmaceutical company provided additional funds to test this product on the macaques. So I passed some of the compound along to a colleague, a noted neuroanatomist, to carry out the hair-growth studies.

My colleague explained to me that the National Institutes of Health was no longer funding classical neuroanatomy studies, so he was pleased to be able to apply some of the money paid to him for the hair-growth experiments to fund his neuroanatomy research, his major interest.

Other examples of auxiliary engines to support research careers

There is a long tradition among physician-scientists of trading clinical service for research time and support. The great physicist Hermann von Helmholtz was interested in natural science, but he trained in medicine at the Charité because there was financial support for medical students. For much of the second half of the 20th century, large companies such as AT&T (Bell Laboratories) and Eli Lilly & Company offered careers combining basic research with more focused and pragmatic profit-oriented research; the latter helped the company pay for the former. In medicine today, physician-scientists and basic scientists supplement support for their research by applying their expertise part time to develop and test commercial products.1 In my own field, vision science, university-based researchers obtain additional funding through clinical and electrophysiologic studies, pathology, imaging, biochemistry, and animal model development performed for pharmaceutical and instrument companies. This is done, with the approval of their universities, in order to obtain funding and equipment subsequently utilized in the researchers' primary fields of interest. Researchers partner with their institutions on patents and form spin-off companies, often with the same goal in mind.

The downside of such auxiliary activities is that it takes time and energy away from researchers' main interests. But in a challenging economic environment such as we have today, the auxiliary engine chugs on and the researcher keeps his or her eye on a glass half full.


1 Universities are delighted when scientists are reimbursed for outside activities that augment their main research activities, and cross-subsidization of research is encouraged by both universities and NIH. The number one rule, always, is transparency. Universities require that you disclose all outside activities for which you put in time and effort and are remunerated. They also ask that such disclosure be proactive and permission be obtained in advance from the appropriate chair, committee, or administrator. Universities are particularly sensitive to university space, resources and/or faculty being involved in outside activities during their working hours, and also for potential conflicts of interest, in which your university research could be biased by receiving outside funding from an inappropriate source, as when a drug company has a vested interest in the outcome of your independent research.

Dan Albert is the Emmett A. Humble Distinguished Director of the Eye Research Institute, Professor and Chair Emeritus, the F. A. Davis Professor, and the Lorenz E. Zimmerman Professor in the Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences Department of the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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