That two-year minimum is a recurring theme, and it's one that ties Indiana University's Zlotnick's hands as well. Zlotnick, like Albertson, is on his second startup package. But he didn't come to IU as a fledgling faculty; Zlotnick had spent 10 years at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, rising to the rank of full professor before making his move in 2008.
As a more experienced researcher with a distinguished record of grantsmanship and publication, Zlotnick found himself in a better position than when he negotiated his first startup package. That's because startup packages awarded to young faculty are intended to help those researchers get up and running, while for more senior faculty, “the university is trying to attract you, as opposed to just get you going,” says Zlotnick. He declined to divulge the details of his own startup package.
Zlotnick, a biophysicist who studies viral assembly, says he moved to Indiana because of its opportunities for collaborations, a larger graduate student body, as well as lifestyle. “Bloomington is the archetypical Midwest college town,” he says. “It's the kind of town in central Indiana where you have your choice of Tibetan restaurants.”
A more practical reason might have been IU's structural biology resources. The university has a cryo-electron microscope (EM) on-site, which Zlotnick uses for his structural studies of viral proteins. “If I were to buy a new EM, I would have to spend about $2 million and worry about personnel to maintain it,” he says. Instead, he borrows time on a shared instrument that costs him just $50 per hour. IU is also a member of a consortium supporting a beam line at the Advanced Light Source (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) and is just a five-hour drive away from the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. Use of the former costs just a few hundred dollars to ship frozen samples cross-country. The latter is basically a road-trip, with free instrument access offset by an estimated $700 to $1,000 per experiment for “car, hotel, and food.”
When he moved to Indiana, Zlotnick was able to move some of his old lab's hardware, but he had to leave a lot behind, as well. Among his new purchases were a spectrophotometer, fluorimeter, water-purification system, incubators, and chromatography equipment — standard fare for a biophysical laboratory, all of which cost several hundred-thousand dollars.
Yet with 11 people in the lab — one full-time and one part-time technician, five postdocs, and four grad students — Zlotnick spends most of his budget on personnel. Postdocs cost nearly $70,000 per year when accounting for salary fringe, and supplies, and like Albertson, Zlotnick says he won't hire someone unless he can support them for at least two years. When it comes to investing money, he says, “It's really the hands and minds that do the work. And those are just as expensive as they can be.”Going genomic
Personnel also weigh heavily on Yongsheng Shi's balance sheet. The young assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of California, Irvine, studies the impact of messenger RNA processing on cancer development and stem cell differentiation. To do that, Shi mixes biochemical and genomic technologies, funding the former with an NIH RO1 grant and the latter off his startup. That package, Shi says, amounts to between $600,000 and $700,000 for equipment, reagents, and salary costs.
With that money, he's purchased everything from pipettemen and microcentrifuges to biosafety cabinets and -80 °C freezers. But again, the bulk of Shi's money pays for his technician, graduate student, and postdoc (plus a fraction of his own salary).
“I spend definitely more than half of the money on salaries,” he says. Indeed, the rule of thumb is that each lab member consumes between $10,000 and $15,000 per year on reagents and supplies, plus another $50,000 to $60,000 in salary and benefits. That comes to $60,000 to $75,000 per person per year, meaning Shi's lab spends as much as $300,000 annually on salary and reagents
alone. His RO1 supplies about two-thirds of that cost with his startup package providing the rest for now. “That's how I can make ends meet,” he says.