For Hector Barajas-Martinez, working as a research scientist at a not-for-profit research institute affords him the so-called "academic freedom" to pursue his scientific interests, but without many of the administrative burdens that often accompany working in an academic lab.
"My work week is at least 40 hours — full time — of scientific activities," says Barajas-Martinez at the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory in Utica, NY. But it's not all spent at the bench, he adds. "My time is divided in several activities that are related to the same goal. I spend 50 percent [of my time] doing experiments at the bench; the rest I am doing analysis, reading and writing, [and] planning projects. Plus, we have two scientific meetings a week," he says.
Barajas-Martinez, who earned a PhD in human genetics from the University of Guadalajara in Mexico, completed postdoctoral training under the tutelage of Masonic Medical Research Laboratory Director Charles Antzelevitch before being hired to the institute's staff in 2008. For his work in the molecular genetics and experimental cardiology programs at the institute, Barajas-Martinez's primary interest is interrogating the biophysical and molecular mechanisms behind cardiac arrhythmias caused by the abnormal function of ion channels as a result of genetic mutations, such as those observed in the Brugada and sudden infant death syndromes, both of which cause unexpected death in apparently healthy individuals.
Before he arrived in Utica to train at the institute, Barajas-Martinez rounded out his training as a postdoc in Robert Dumaine's physiology and biophysics lab at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec.
"My multidisciplinary educational background in biology, chemistry, physiology, and genetics [has] helped me to understand the challenge of science for my [current] and future work," he says. Having now done research in both academic and nonprofit settings, Barajas-Martinez says the "great difference" between the two is in their foci. "This cardiac institute is just focused [on] research, [while] academic labs need to split time with different issues," he says, not least of which are teaching and service requirements. However, much like an academic PI, "I am totally involved in every single part of [my] research projects," he says.
Being able to do research for research's sake is one of the most rewarding aspects of his job, Barajas-Martinez says. He adds that helping people in dire medical need and sharing his scientific results with the community are equally rewarding.
But there are challenges. The Masonic Medical Research Laboratory is supported by extramural grant funding — primarily from the National Institutes of Health — and charitable donations — from the American Heart Association as well as other foundations and corporations. Consequently, Barajas-Martinez and his colleagues' research trajectories are somewhat subject to the institute's financial support. As such, budgets are variable; in order to "make the best and important scientific contributions to medicine … [and] in cardiac disease in the world," Barajas-Martinez and his colleagues must continually submit grants.
For those interested in becoming scientific staff at a not-for-profit research institute, Barajas-Martinez says rigorous scientific training — such as that required by most research doctorate programs — is imperative. When making the transition from postdoc to staff, Barajas-Martinez says it's important that early career scientists in the nonprofit setting begin applying for their own funding early on. While he has not yet obtained an independent grant, Barajas-Martinez continues to apply for funding. For now, though, "the executive director of the MMRL has many grants, and I have ... these accepted grants to work with," he says.
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