Making the move from a postdoc to establishing your own lab can seem daunting. Jeffrey Perkel talks to several young researchers and learns the ropes of start up packages, hiring personnel, and how to stretch those funds in the early years.
After years of training and toil, long nights and cold pizza, the big day finally comes: You've been offered a tenure-track position to do research at a university. Now comes the fun part: negotiating your startup package, and planning your future lab.
It's a critical moment in the life of a scientist. A startup package is not the scientific equivalent of an NBA star's signing bonus — it's an investment on the part of the university, intended to prime the pump of your nascent lab and make it self-sustaining.
“As an assistant professor the startup package is intended to fill your lab, allow you to buy equipment, and provide you the wherewithal to attract research funds,” explains Adam Zlotnick, a professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at Indiana University. It's an investment that's good not only for the researcher, but for the university itself. If a faculty member fails to get tenure because their startup was too small, he says, “all that money went down the drain.”
“Independent of whether or not that person was good enough to receive tenure, if they were starved to death for money, then they won't thrive and the university has cut its own throat.”
Details vary, but startup packages generally provide funding for big-ticket items as well as your pipettors, your computers and reagents, travel, personnel and so on. How generous the package is, of course, varies by school, discipline, and other intangibles. But one thing is certain: However large it is, there will always be something you will need but cannot yet afford.When you need that big-ticket item
For Bernd Bodenmiller, that something, or rather, those somethings, are mice.
Bodenmiller was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University with Garry Nolan when he was offered a group leader position at the Institute of Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Zurich in 2011. While at Stanford, Bodenmiller, who officially started in Zurich on February 1 of this year, mastered a relatively new piece of equipment, a CyTOF mass cytometer from DVS Sciences. The CyTOF is like a flow cytometer, but rather than nondestructively enumerating and characterizing fluorescently labeled cells, the CyTOF “nukes” them in a mass spectrometer, quantifying cellular antigens by the abundance of lanthanide-tagged antibodies.
The CyTOF enables multiplexing levels unheard of for standard flow cytometry instruments; Bodenmiller has run assays with some 35 distinct tags (or “channels”) to tease apart cellular signaling pathways. An experienced flow cytometrists might top out at 10 or 12.
Zurich didn't have a CyTOF, so naturally that instrument, which costs some $650,000 to $700,000, represented a key component of Bodenmiller's startup package. “It was essential to get a CyTOF instrument for my own research group, as everything I'm doing is surrounded by the technology of mass cytometry,” he says.
Bodenmiller's package included a million dollars for equipment, reagents, and consumables, plus approximately $200,000 per year for six years for personnel — $2.2 million in total. And, in what should come as no surprise, much of the equipment budget is already spent. In addition to the CyTOF, he used his money (plus some additional extramural funding) to purchase such standard lab items as pipettors, centrifuges, vortexers, refrigerators, and so on. He'll also need argon gas — the CyTOF requires a steady supply, between $10,000 and $20,000 per year, he estimates — as well as a service contract (typically about 10% of the purchase price of an instrument). And then he'll need antibodies, each of which can cost from $500 to $1,000 apiece, plus the reagents to couple them to their lanthanide tags (3,000 for up to 40 reactions).
Bodenmiller says his $200,000 annual budget is enough to support up to two postdocs or four graduate students. He plans to start with two graduate students and a technician, though — a small group of individuals he can train carefully who can then help train others as the lab grows. Postdocs, he says, will come later, once he's figured out what new expertise (such as bioinformatics) he'd like to fold into the lab.