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The World of Program Directors

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The first position I secured at the end of my 2 years as an AAAS fellow was with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The Fund is an independent private foundation that supports biomedical research. They advertised the opening in Science. Given my new experiences in science policy, the match sounded good so I applied.

The Fund hired me to serve as program officer for a number of competitive award programs providing funding in the areas of pharmacology, toxicology, and infectious diseases. My primary responsibility was the administration and oversight of the granting process (e.g., soliciting applications, planning advisory meetings, and interacting with grantees and university sponsored programs offices). Many times I helped plan special symposia at national meetings on topic areas that the Fund supported. I traveled extensively to conferences to stay abreast in current research areas and to highlight the Fund's activities. I enjoyed my work and had begun several special initiatives (e.g., a mentoring program to couple new investigators with senior leaders in their field) that were particularly fun and rewarding.

Furthermore, my job at the Fund offered unparalleled security (the benefit of a large endowment). However, I was willing to give this up after about a year and a half when I was offered my current position as administrative director of the Merck Genome Research Institute (MGRI).

That this opportunity opened up for me was truly an instance of everything coming together at just the right time. A general letter inviting nominations for the position was passed along to me. I thought I had a pretty good chance at the position, given my background in human and molecular genetics coupled with my nonprofit funding experience. I put a call into the president of the Institute. The more he told me about the position, the more I knew that I wanted this job. Although I was satisfied with my position at the Fund, I did miss being in the mainstream of genetics. Working for the MGRI lacked the long-term security of the Fund, but I could not pass it up-the Institute is wholly devoted to functional genomics research, the position was a step up, and it meant the chance to be at Merck!

You see, the pharmaceutical industry had become a place where I hoped to work someday and you can't get any better than Merck. By the time I left Washington, I had become active in the area of policy and science career development. I continued in these efforts after joining the Fund. For example, the AAAS invited me to serve on a special task force to study what the association could do to increase or enhance their career development undertakings, and I was elected to the board of directors of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology.

These activities brought me into contact with a number of individuals from the pharmaceutical industry. They helped change my negatively biased view about industry, acquired during my years in academia. For the most part, those I encountered from this industry were bright, caring scientists who liked their work. They took great satisfaction in the fact that the end results of their research really do make a positive impact in the world. I decided that at some point I would like to work for a major pharmaceutical company. Merck is not only a well-known leader in the industry, but I soon learned it has a long-standing reputation for being a great place to work.

I had begun talking with people in the industry to identify non-lab positions where my skills would be beneficial, but I never expected an opportunity to arise so quickly or to be so ideal. The MGRI is a not-for-profit institute established by Merck & Co. to support genomic sequence to function technology development.

Currently, a large quantity of genomic sequence is being generated for many organisms, including man. The MGRI goal is to support the development of basic research technologies to effectively and efficiently mine this rich information source. We support research in universities and other settings and we make the results of these efforts publicly and widely available. The Institute is separate from Merck & Co. and I play no role in the for-profit activities (I am a Merck employee on lease to the Institute), but I am in a position to be able to observe and learn about the pharmaceutical industry.

I still can't believe I was so lucky to have such an opportunity become available to me. I feel the same way that many of the faculty I know, say they feel about research: I am having a great time and I get paid for doing it!

My actual situation in research funding administration is fairly unique. There are certainly a number of possible career avenues for research funding administration, but the establishment of this Institute by Merck is peerless. Merck has a long tradition of supporting the sharing of research results and tools to ensure that progress is not impeded downstream, which could prevent the development of new pharmaceuticals to benefit humanity. I know of no other pharmaceutical company that has established an independent foundation to fund public domain basic research at this level. The reader needs to keep in mind that my actual situation is rare, but comparable positions do exist in other settings (at the National Institutes of Health, NSF, other government agencies, and not-for-profits) and many of the work activities I describe apply in all of these environments.

Since the MGRI is housed at Merck & Co.'s facility in West Point, Pennsylvania, which is somewhat similar to an academic research setting, I am surrounded by bright, interesting people. The Institute itself is just a staff of two-myself and my secretary, but I am not isolated. Even though the work of the MGRI is completely separate from Merck & Co., I still have cause for interaction, both professionally and socially, with scientists and others in the company. Thus, I get the same kind of broad contact and intellectual stimulation as with an academic position.

The Job

In my position as administrative director I serve the Institute's Board of Trustees, all of whom, are senior management within Merck from around the world, and I also work with our external advisors, a group of five renowned researchers from around the United States. I also interact regularly with the administrators and researchers at the institutions we support. I am privileged to work with a lot of talented, interesting people as well as many of the greatest scientific minds of our time.

I'll admit, at times there certainly are the frustrations that come with any job, and every large organization has its own bureaucracy to contend with. But I really have the best of both worlds: the ability to work rather independently on a large project without being isolated. Most of the work is collaborative in nature, so I have interaction with, and input and backstopping from, an array of bright individuals.

My day-to-day work environment is rather independent. Administering the Institute involves overseeing the solicitation of applications, reviewing them for appropriateness to the mission, monitoring the external and internal reviews, providing the board with all the necessary information to make final funding decisions, monitoring progress of awardees, and serving as project manager on several special initiatives. Other duties include budgeting, planning board and other meetings, establishing and maintaining a grant-tracking data base, and developing and maintaining a web site for the Institute.

I spend a lot of time on the phone, on the web, writing correspondence and other materials, and e-mailing-in other words, gathering and disseminating information through a range of methods. This includes providing guidance to potential applicants to ensure that we solicit only those applications that are appropriate to our mission; seeking information on current technologies and related funding efforts to help guide our program; arranging and attending the meetings that are necessary to run the Institute and its projects; and seeking potential funding partners when appropriate.

By necessity I must read broadly, including technical journals and the lay press, and I attend conferences. I need to stay abreast of the latest technological developments while working to highlight the mission and activities of the MGRI to attract appropriate, innovative proposals from outside scientists.

Travel opportunities (or requirements, depending on your perspective) are a necessity for funders, but they vary depending on where you work. There are certain conferences that you must attend, and site visits are extremely helpful for gaining a solid understanding of the work that is being supported. In my last position, my project portfolio included such a diversity of scientific fields that I had a huge number of meetings to attend and ended up traveling on average 2 to 3 times a month. Since the MGRI mission is more focused, there are fewer "must attend" activities and I get to spend significantly more time at home.

Many of the Institute activities mentioned above are backstopped and assisted by a number of Merck's divisions, predominantly legal and public affairs. On a weekly basis, I work most closely with two individuals other than the Institute secretary. One is the president of the Institute, Dr. C. Thomas Caskey, who also serves as my "Merck" boss and is a senior vice president within the company. The other is a Merck lawyer, Ms. Mary Bartkus, who serves as the MGRI's administrative secretary. Both are conscientious mentors.
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