With an annual operating budget of just $100,000, Wang and Baozhong Xin—a postdoc who was hired in 2006—publish three or four articles each year in top journals, including Science, Nature Genetics, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They have discovered two new genes implicated in two medical conditions and conducted one of the cheapest clinical trials in history, formulating a nutritional formula from pig brains that supplements a protein missing in a rare developmental disorder.
“When you do more meaningful work, it is quite an adventure. But the money does come.” —Heng Wang
Conducting successful science on a shoestring budget makes for a good story—but it is, more importantly, a vital skill set in times of declining research funding. With the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) budget languishing, investigators must find ways to stay afloat. In this respect, the DDC clinic could serve as a paradigm. What advice do Wang and other spartan scientists have to offer? Be resourceful, creative, and daring, they suggest—and protective of your scientific passion. “When you do more meaningful work, it is quite an adventure,” Wang says. “But the money does come.”
Use what you have
When the DDC clinic began, Wang could not afford an office where he could meet patients. So he made house calls. A year later, he converted a small home into a clinic and recruited an Amish carpenter to build a “lab:” a bench in a 9-square-foot space that supports a centrifuge for DNA purification.
The Hunt for Money in Biomedicine
Going beyond bargain hunting, Wang drew on his most important asset: a heartfelt mission to help minority children who don’t have health insurance. Pleading that case, he convinced Affymetrix, CytoScan’s manufacturer, to extend the instrument’s warranty by 2 years. A local philanthropist underwrote purchase of a new Illumina MiSeq device that facilitates targeted gene sequencing. And the clinic stays afloat. More than that: It’s doing good science.
For young researchers, frugal environments can offer broad, resourceful training. “Having the experience of working on projects cheaply, in a very small lab, I get the opportunity to do a little bit of everything,” says genetics researcher Adam Heaps, at the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, which pioneered the model for Wang’s Ohio clinic.
Create a concept … and sell it
Seconding the idea of using scarcity to breed opportunity, Jason Osborne, a laboratory instrument designer, and Aaron Alford, a psychiatric epidemiologist, came up with an outrageous concept: Get the education system to pay for field work in paleontology. With nothing but some scuba equipment and an intrepid spirit, the two cofounded Paleo Quest and SharkFinder, which enlist students to hunt for fossils of ancient sharks, rays, and invertebrates.
Based near Washington—Alford at Battelle in Arlington, Virginia, and Osborne at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI’s) Janelia Farm research campus in Ashburn, Virginia—the investigators first sought to prove their concept. They targeted areas known to be rich in fossils from information-poor periods of prehistory. They dove to the bottom of North Carolina swamps with alligators and 30 feet of black water to collect material. Painstakingly sorting through the swamp matter, they found that it did indeed contain “super high yields” of shark and ray fossils.
Next came the sales pitch. Alford and Osborne contacted the heads of elementary and middle school science departments. Given a green light, they sent teachers unsorted swamp material and armed students with instructions for identifying fossils. The kids did the sifting and discovered fossils that appear to be “first occurrence” species in the region where they were found.
Give away data
But of course, before they could publish, they needed to be confident of their conclusions. So Osborne and Alford trotted over to Bretton Kent, director of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park. Kent is passionate about ancient sharks and rays, but he could not do that work because UMD’s Department of Entomology, where he had his post, did not have a position for cartilaginous fish paleontology. Sold on the SharkFinder idea, Kent trained undergraduates to assist in processing and studying the samples. The result: A gold mine of discoveries. The project is now staffed with 10 undergraduates, a lab head supervisor, and, of course, Kent. His team has prepared 13 manuscripts based on discoveries made largely by students, some as young as 8 years old.
The key to this economical approach to paleontology is that Osborne and Alford were happy to “give data away,” Osborne says. While it may look like an act of altruism, in this case data sharing seeded the novel funding model. The schools now buy the kits, and UMD researchers write grants that pay for fieldwork. Osborne and Alford do what they love most, diving and publishing on novel methods of science education, including citizen science, where regular people gather data to support peer-reviewed science. Osborne’s inclusiveness led to an invitation to the White House as a “champion for change” in science education. He accepted the award on behalf of SharkFinder.
His advice: “Proof of concept first … network like hell … give data away. Then, funding falls into your hands.”
Money can also be teased from the commercial sector. Looking for a way to promote science education for all, Osborne came up with another wild idea: Why not sell beer to pay for lab equipment for underprivileged schools? The idea is not as crazy—or controversial—as it seems. At HHMI, Osborne had worked with molecular biologist Jasper Akerboom, who later left to follow a dream: He became a brewmaster and yeast specialist.
On a whim, Osborne and Akerboom swabbed the bones from a prehistoric whale found by Alford. Akerboom cultured from it a wild strain of yeast and brewed a hip, new beer. Meanwhile, Osborne championed labeling the beer with whale skull bones, and an Internet link to learn more. The project spans public outreach, education, and real research. It is a way to teach the public about yeast, molecular biology, and paleontology. Part of the proceeds goes to the SharkFinder project, eventually supporting science departments at underprivileged schools.
Computer research scientist Victor Pankratius of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is part of an interdisciplinary team at MIT’s Haystack Observatory. The team’s goal is to map the electron content in the atmosphere with high resolution. Such maps can help monitor natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes.
If they had chosen the traditional, expensive approach, the team would have spent large sums setting up a satellite network and positioning earth-based receivers to collect the data for calculating electron content in the ionosphere. But Pankratius and his team leveraged an economical alternative: Harness the GPS network that people use to find directions to, say, a restaurant. Scientists could intercept two different frequency signals relayed by the same satellite. The delay between them would be proportional to the total electron content in the ionosphere.
Pankratius had to get around one problem: Typical mobile phones—while inexpensive, ubiquitous, and capable of acting as sensors—have cheap GPS receivers that are not capable of measuring the two frequencies. So his team constructed external dual-frequency receivers and positioned them at strategic access points. When a smartphone user walks near one of those access points, the receivers recognize their mobile devices and relay a signal to the phones, which in turn transmit the data via cellular networks or Wi-Fi to the place where they are analyzed.
It’s affordable because the networks they’re using already exist. “We are not building a new satellite infrastructure,” Pankratius says. “We are reusing the existing GPS infrastructure, but for science instead of positioning.”
Take a risk
Commercial technology also aided atmospheric scientist Berk Knighton, a faculty member in chemistry and biochemistry at Montana State University (MSU), Bozeman. Trained to do chemistry and atmospheric sciences research, Knighton weathered the 1999 recession by branching out from his lab to work part-time on a MSU program called “BOREALIS,” funded by NASA to promote science education.
Typically, researchers would have to line up to pay for a spot on a NASA satellite or a large-scale balloon. The wait would be up to 7 years, and it would be necessary to “add two zeros to the cost of whatever we do,” Knighton says.
Knighton’s predecessors at MSU came up with a cheaper alternative: weather balloons, $250-600 apiece, that can float to altitudes of 100,000 feet. Because the balloons are less than 12 pounds, they save money and hassle by sidestepping a requirement for licensing by the Federal Aviation Administration, which waives the rule for small balloons that gather weather data. Students do space science cheaply, photographing events like solar eclipses or attempting to collect cosmic dust. (The students did capture particles in space, but they turned out to be aluminum oxide spheres, produced by rocket exhaust.) Knighton’s team also harnesses the latest commercial advances, such as miniature video cameras, meant for the sporting market but capable of weathering the extremes of temperature in near space.
Doing low-budget science means taking risks, but that is part of its value. “I have had to be very creative and redefine what I do a couple of times through my career,” Knighton says. “Boredom is not something I suffer.” That attitude drives true invention, he notes.
MIT’s Pankratius agrees. “Don’t go for something that is robust but does not yield too many new insights,” he says. “Look for the interesting projects with potentially a breakthrough character … and take the risk.”
Top Image: Heng Wang. Courtesy of Heng Wang