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The Vulnerable: Talene Yacoubian

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Science  04 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6179, pp. 26
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6179.26

A young Parkinson's researcher struggles to establish herself, a task made much harder by the challenge of landing her first big grant.

CREDIT: UAB NEWS

Talene Yacoubian is exactly the kind of researcher the federal government says we need more of: a Duke- and Harvard-trained physician-scientist, a neurologist who balances her care for Parkinson's patients with a hunt for treatments that slow the disease. But at 43, Yacoubian's career has been one long slog, and she sometimes wonders if she should just give up on academic research.

Once upon a time, scientists her age would be well on their way—with their own blossoming lab, their own stable funding. Instead, Yacoubian, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, has spent the past 3 years churning out grant proposals and struggling to win her first R01, the basic research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that is the ticket to an independent research career. Around her, scientists she admires are shuttering their labs.

"This is what I've spent all these years wanting to do," she says. "But it just may not be feasible with everything changing in science." Her dilemma illustrates one of the biomedical research community's biggest worries: that it is losing a generation of young scientists.

Yacoubian grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee; though her first language was her parents' Armenian, she now speaks with a trace of a Southern accent. As a freshman at Harvard University, she took a neurobiology course and was hooked. After an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Duke University, she moved back to Boston and to a neurology residency through a joint program of the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals—where she fell in love with the idea of combining bench research with patient care.

In the summer of 2007, Yacoubian settled into her own lab space at the University of Alabama. She had a career development award from NIH, and a fellowship from the American Parkinson Disease Association to study proteins that protect against cell death. The tenure clock was ticking: She had 10 years before it was up and would need an R01 to be considered.

But that clock was competing with another, the age at which the average Ph.D. receives his or her first R01—36 in 1980 and 42 today. (It is 44 for M.D.-Ph.D.s like Yacoubian.) To support this vulnerable group, many NIH institutes have a more lenient cutoff for grant applications from those who finished graduate school or medical residency within the last 10 years. It's not clear that the policy is working, however; so far, the average age for a first R01 has not budged, according to the agency.

In fall 2011, Yacoubian sent off her first R01 application. She didn't make the cut, so she revised and resubmitted the proposal for a second and last shot. A year earlier, her score would likely have meant success. But NIH was bracing for a 5% funding cut from the automatic reductions in federal spending known as the sequester. In March 2013, after the White House and Congress failed to reach a compromise, the sequester hit. Yacoubian became a casualty, and her proposal was turned down.

What followed was a flurry of grant applications and mounting stress. A new R01 proposal failed, too: NIH's Center for Scientific Review deemed it too similar to her previous application, making it ineligible. "I spent the summer really frustrated and trying to figure out what direction I needed to go," Yacoubian says.

CREDIT: (DATA) NIH;(ILLUSTRATIONS) G. GRULLÓN/SCIENCE

To wow reviewers with a brand-new topic, she generated data for yet another R01, on how a misfolded protein spreads through the brain in Parkinson's. She opted not to replace a departing postdoc, graduate student, and technician, so her staff dropped from six to three. Small foundation grants and bridge funding from her department kept her afloat, barely. In February, after ice storms closed her 4- and 7-year-olds' schools for 6 days, Yacoubian hit a low point. "I've seen folks I've known who've been very successful in science just finally say, 'It's just not worth it,' " she says.

Last month, as winter thawed into spring, Yacoubian finally got some good news. Nearly 7 years after she finished her training, she learned that her latest R01 submission scored well within the funding window for early stage investigators. Just one step remains—approval by an NIH council in May. "A weight is off my shoulders," she says. But she won't relax until she has the award letter in her hand. After so much time struggling to make it, she's still not sure she has.

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