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Q&A: MIT biologist to head NIH’s basic sciences institute

Kaiser.jpgChris Kaiser, a cell biologist who heads the department of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, will become director of the basic biosciences institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency has announced.

Kaiser will move to NIH’s Bethesda, Maryland campus in early April 2012 to take the helm of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), at US$2 billion the fourth-largest of the NIH’s 27 institutes and centres.

“He’s a magnificent choice. I can’t imagine a better person,” says Jeremy Berg, the former NIGMS director, who stepped down in June. Berg, who has known Kaiser since junior high school where they were both children of Stanford professors, says that Kaiser is “a basic scientist’s basic scientist. He really believes that understanding fundamental processes is absolutely crucial if we’re ever going to understand human biology well enough to make differences in human health.”

Kaiser, an NIGMS grantee himself since 1992, has worked with yeast to elucidate the basic mechanisms of protein folding and intracellular transport — work leading to the discovery of numerous genes and related mutations.

He is is also co-author of the fifth and sixth editions of a widely used textbook, Molecular Cell Biology, a job, says Berg, that is good preparation for his new gig, because it “gets you past the gels and plates of your lab and really thinking about where a field is and how much progress has been made.”

The NIGMS supports training and basic research that lays the foundation for discoveries across the life sciences from cell biology and biophysics to genetics and developmental biology. The roughly 4,500 grants it supports comprise some 10% of the NIH’s total.

Kaiser will be taking the reins of the institute at a time when both the NIGMS and the NIH as a whole are facing some major challenges. Grant success rates are at historic lows. And a proposed reorganization of NIH to create a new translational medicine center will mean that some programmes that are currently part of the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) will be shifted over to the NIGMS — a plan that Berg vocally opposed.

Nature caught up with Kaiser to find out about his plans for NIGMS:


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What are your priorities going into your new job?

The main priority is to keep the funding of R01* grants for basic research strong.

[*R01 grants are the NIH’s mainstay grants for extramural investigators.]

Do you feel that basic research funding has been under fire in a way that, say, clinical research has not been?

First, it’s worth noting that I am known as a dyed-in-the-wool basic researcher. So simply the fact that [NIH director] Francis Collins and the search committee selected me says a lot about their commitment to basic research.

That said, basic research has always been under fire in the sense that the consequences of making mistakes in terms of funding it aren’t felt right away. So guiding the basic research enterprise has always been very tricky, because it kind of works on a ten-year time scale rather than a one-year or six-month time scale like a lot of businesses. The story of the justification of the investment as a long term, high value payoff, is something that has to be told over and over and over again.

How do you think heading up biology at MIT has prepared you to lead the NIGMS?

I’ve been a recipient in a sense of both NIGMS funding for our big training grant — we have one big graduate program training grant for the entire biology program — and then one for our computational and systems biology training program. Then, certainly being involved in money flowing into labs at MIT, particularly junior faculty labs, is something that I have been keenly aware of.

Also, one of the major functions of a department head — vetting junior faculty — is in some ways a very similar process to the NIH’s vetting of grant recipients. Essentially, you have a finite amount of resources and you’re trying to figure out who to invest in. That’s something I’ve spent a lot of energy and time thinking about. I think that’s actually going to be very helpful for me in terms of figuring out how the NIGMS should deploy its money to foster budding young scientists.

What attracted you to the NIGMS opportunity?

It’s the wellspring of the material support that makes everything at MIT that I love happen. I was also the child of an academic. My father [Lasker award winner Dale Kaiser] was an NIGMS grant recipient. He worked on phage lambda. I remember as a little kid asking him what was the point? And he explained how this simple virus that infects bacteria works and [how] that will help cure human diseases. So the notion of running this institute is really to me a great honor. And I feel something of a sense of duty giving back to this system that has supported me and my colleagues for so many years.

You’re going to continue your research while at the NIGMS — how?

I’ll have a lab that is in the child health [institute]. By good fortune, one of the units there actually has several people who I have known for many years and have been quite close colleagues with. It’s almost a perfect fit for me. And they seem quite delighted to have me join them. I’m going to be working on the same fundamental cell biology research I’m doing now, which is studying how membrane protein trafficking works in yeast cells and how disulfide bonds form in secreted proteins.

What’s your take-home message for NIGMS extramural investigators?

We’re going to try to figure out how to deploy the money as wisely as possible. But I think communication with the grantees and grant applicants is really important. This is obviously something that Jeremy Berg did a fantastic job at. And I would like to build on that and try to make the decisions and operations of the NIGMS as transparent to the stakeholders as possible. [For instance] I would like to regularly attend society meetings so I have a chance to talk to people.

Photo: Patrick Gillooly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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