Thressa and Earl Stadtman

Couples are wholes and not wholes,
What agrees disagrees,
The concordant is discordant.
From all things one
And from one all things.

Heraclitus, On the Universe, fragment 59.

by Rebecca Kolberg

With the largest concentration of biomedical scientists in the world, it's only logical that NIH would also be home to the largest number of biomedical researchers who happen to be married to each other. However, with all the attention focused on individual scientific achievement and career advancement, the strength that researchers themselves, as well as NIH as a whole, derive from these personal, and occasionally professional, alliances goes largely unrecognized.

Although NIH keeps no official tally of the number of intramural research couples, almost any intramural scientist can tick off the names of a half-dozen or more colleagues who are married to other intramural researchers. Furthermore, almost since its inception, NIH has been considered one of the more hospitable environments for dual-scientist couples, although many postdoc couples now frantically searching for tenure-track positions on the same coast -- let alone the same institution -- may find that difficult to believe.

"Nepotism rules were so terrible at universities when we were starting out that we were afraid that we could not work at the same place," says Thressa Stadtman, Chief of NHLBI's Intermediary Metabolism and Bioenergetics Section, who, along with her husband, Earl, Chief of NHLBI's Laboratory of Biochemistry until 1995, came to NIH in 1951.

The Stadtmans, both of whom are members of the National Academy of Sciences, have been married 51 years and tied the knot while they were still in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. During the couple's job hunts in the early 1950s, some universities that were courting Earl offered Thressa, who is a Ph.D. biochemist, positions with salaries scarcely better than those paid to graduate students. One benevolent institution suggested a job in the home economics department! Even when the Stadtmans were further along in their scientific careers, the dean of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston only half-jokingly suggested that the pair get a divorce if both wanted positions with his institution.

Although the hiring outlook for research couples may have brightened somewhat over the decades, Thressa Stadtman acknowledges that it remains a serious problem, although these days, the difficulties seem to be more evenly distributed between the sexes. She cites the case of one of her postdocs, who was not in nearly as much demand as his wife, whose research is in a more trendy field.

Typical of many scientific couples of their generation, the Stadtmans elected not to have children. "There was no way I could have children and do science and not do damage to one or the other," says Thressa Stadtman. "We have our scientific `children'," she says, referring to the hundreds of scientists that the couple has mentored.

Although Earl Stadtman says he doesn't think research couples at NIH fare worse than those in academia, his wife says she thinks her career might have advanced faster if she had not chosen to remain in the same intramural research laboratory as her husband. "But for every advantage, there is a price. As soon as you learn to take that view, you don't complain," she says.

Like most intramural research couples interviewed, the Stadtmans characterize their scientific relationship as one of cooperation, rather than competition. Cooperation crossed the line into collaboration only once -- when they co-authored a review article on bacterial metabolism. "By the end, we were so tired of arguing, neither of us cared what the other said," Thressa Stadtman recalls.

In contrast, and much to their surprise, marriage has led to several fruitful scientific collaborations for another pair of intramural researchers: Karen Berman, a clinical investigator at NIMH, and Michael Iadarola, a basic scientist at NIDR. Berman and Iadarola had both been at NIH for several years before another intramural research couple introduced them, a meeting that eventually led to their marriage nine years ago.

Michael Iadarola and Karen Berman

In addition to their separate research projects, Berman and Iadarola are working together on a brain-imaging study of patients with chronic pain. Iadarola, a Ph.D. research pharmacologist in NIDR's Neurobiology and Anesthesiology Branch, says he never would have become principal investigator on a clinical trial without the encouragement and technical advice of Berman, an M.D. who is Chief of the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Unit at NIMH's Clinical Brain Disorders Branch.

"It's actually been a lot of fun for me. I'm used to doing a lot of esoteric molecular biology," Iadarola says. "I'd probably not have taken concrete steps to implement it (the human imaging project) without Karen."

Berman, who is board certified in nuclear medicine, convinced Iadarola of the feasibility of using PET for his studies of chronic-pain patients. She also helped him navigate the unfamiliar paperwork pertaining to radiation safety and human subjects. The imaging project is actually the couple's third, and largest, collaboration. In their first joint effort, the couple worked on an enkephalin peptide in the cerebrospinal fluid of schizophrenic patients treated with antipsychotics. The second was on the development of a SPECT ligand for the opiate receptor. So far, this union has given rise to three jointly authored papers, two patents, and another paper submitted.

As for the pros and cons of working at NIH, Berman says one drawback is that research couples usually make less money than if one or both partners were in academia or industry. "But I think we have more flexibility in lifestyle being here," Berman adds, noting that in the past few years, since the couple's two boys were born, she and her husband have made it a point to head home together in time for dinner.

Another benefit of being located at the same institution and working in similar fields is that it's easier for each partner to understand the pressures and demands on the other. "I think it's easier for us to understand the time you do have to put in, as well as suggest ways to compromise and anticipate time problems," Berman says.

Ronald and Gale Germain, Chief of the Lymphocyte Biology Section at NIAID and a research psychologist at NIMH, respectively, say that they think NIH research couples actually have a better quality of life than many other types of two-career couples, such as two lawyers or top executives, "whose time is much less their own." However, the Germains, who have been married just under 10 years, add that intramural couples pay a higher price than research couples in academia with respect to the more limited scope of permitted outside activities, and to the constraints on new job opportunities because of the lack of portable grants, retirement plans or suitable local academic institutions in many fields.

However, in some instances the price paid by intramural research couples can be even higher. An intramural researcher, who asked not to be named, says that after he married a fellow in his lab about five years ago, she was forced to leave NIH due to strict nepotism rules that stipulate one spouse cannot directly supervise the other. Before their marriage, the couple had collaborated on several projects for four years, with the woman being responsible for performing some of the more innovative techniques. His wife's departure "slowed my work considerably," the researcher says. Although the female researcher has since found a job at a local university, it's not nearly as desirable a position as the one she was forced to leave at NIH, her husband says.

"I'd say it's only a good idea to get married [to another intramural researcher] if you have different skills and interests. Otherwise, it's a bummer," the researcher says. "NIH neither condones nor encourages husband-wife collaborations."

Perhaps the most commonly heard complaint in the NIH community about intramural research couples is that one partner appears blind to the other's scientific shortcomings. However, many intramural research couples say they feel they are actually harsher in their assessments of their spouse's work than they are of other colleagues'.

"Our work areas are largely nonoverlapping, so we do not compete. For this reason, we are less specifically critical of each other's research per se, but at the same time, we are more emotionally invested in and critical of the process involved in conducting the work and getting it published, i.e., how one runs a lab or deals with working for someone else," the Germains wrote in response to questions posed by The NIH Catalyst.

As for Bruce Bunnell, a Senior Staff Fellow in gene-therapy research at NCHGR, and Paula Gregory, a Ph.D. cell biologist who is Chief of NCHGR's Genetics Education Office, Bunnell says, "We both tend to be extremely critical when we write papers. We both do it to help the other become a better scientist." That sentiment is echoed by Ann M. Ginsberg and Marc Reitman, Senior Staff Fellows at NIDDK. Ginsberg, who studies proteins involved in mammalian fertilization, and Reitman, who studies regulation of the chicken globin gene cluster, state, "We are equally or more critical of each other's research since we care more about its outcome."

However, some researchers concede they may look more kindly upon their spouses' work -- especially if it is in an unfamiliar field -- than on the work of researchers in their own specialties. "Because I am not competent in the field in which he works, I'm not critical of his work. I always assume, however, that the work he does is great," says Brenda Kirkby, a doctoral student in neuropsychology at NIMH who has been married for three years to Duncan Kirkby, a postdoc electrophysiologist with NINDS.

If the couples interviewed for this article are any indication, the inappropriate exchange of scientific information or the granting of special privileges does not seem to be a problem for intramural couples. "I've never encountered criticism or hostility that lab secrets would be revealed at home, possibly because colleagues work with the assumption that secrets will be exchanged!" Brenda Kirkby says. Typically, surveyed couples in which one partner is higher up the NIH career ladder than the other said they take particular pains to emphasize their separate professional identities and avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

Jennifer Puck, Chief of the Immunological Genetics Section at NCHGR, and her husband Robert Nussbaum, Chief of the Laboratory of Genetic Disease Research at NCHGR, had quite a few years to work out ways to keep their signals clear with one another and with their colleagues before they came to NIH 11/2 years ago. The couple married when both were medical school students. After residencies at Washington University at St. Louis, both went into academic research -- first, at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and then at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

Puck attributes her happiness and success in the intramural program -- as well as in marriage -- to simple straightforwardness developed over the years. "I have had to make it clear to people that I do not necessarily receive information given to my husband, nor do I want to be counted on to pass things on to him. We're both busy, independent people and not each other's secretaries."

Nussbaum adds that at other institutions in the past, "There have been times when I have felt that people assumed that when I support my wife over an administrative issue, as opposed to a scientific one, that I am doing it out of loyalty rather than because I agree with her." In reality, presentation of a united front is the result of the couple's hard work thrashing out the issues in private before joining the public discussion. "If I don't agree, I talk it over with her in private before having any public discussion and tell her that I don't agree," he says.

Couples, such as Puck and Nussbaum and Bunnell and Gregory, who are relatively new arrivals at NIH after spending years in academia, are perhaps more finely tuned to the unique advantages and disadvantages of NIH than those who've been here most of their careers.

"I found academic life to be more stressful," says Nussbaum, who along with his wife spent 15 years in academic research before coming to NIH . Bunnell agrees, saying that if he had an equivalent position in academia, he'd have to devote many of his evenings and weekends to writing grants, rather than spending time with his family. "Here we can do science. We don't have to spend our time begging for money," says Bunnell, who met Gregory while teaching her how to clone genes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The couple then pulled up stakes and moved to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor before coming to NCHGR last year.

Gregory notes that there are also far more administrative opportunities for Ph.D.s at NIH than at most universities, giving a bench researcher who is trying to relocate with his or her spouse the chance to make a career shift rather than simply not have a job. On the downside, she points out that intramural salaries are generally below those in academia and, unlike many universities, NIH doesn't offer the option of a nine-month work year -- an option that many dual-scientist couples with young children find convenient.

So, adding up all the pluses and minuses, would most intramural researcher couples do it all over again? For most of the couples interviewed, the answer is a resounding yes.

One senior intramural research couple, Judith Rapoport, Chief of the Child Psychiatry Branch of NIMH, and Stanley Rapoport, Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at NIA, report their scientific careers turned out far better than they expected when they got married 33 years ago. "We met in medical school ... and thought of research at the time, but we were not sure it would work out," Judith Rapoport says. When she looks back, Rapoport says it's clear that having a scientist for a spouse has enriched her marriage, although it was not always obvious at the time. But even when both partners have notched impressive scientific achievements, it's not always a bed of roses for intramural research couples because problems facing the NIH scientific community hit such marriages doubly hard. "Sometimes I wish we did not share so much of the current concerns over changes at the NIH," Rapoport says.

Acting Director of NIDR Dushanka Kleinman, who has been married for 20 years to Joel Kleinman, Chief of the Section on Neuropathology at NIMH, says that the pairing of two scientific minds "has enriched our marriage and helped our careers. We have a receptive and understanding ear at home. We do not need to translate issues related to the `process' of research and feel we get a relatively unbiased assessment at the home front."

With all the clouds on the employment horizon, some of today's young scientists might be more than a bit hesitant about getting hitched to another biomedical researcher. But, noting that their research careers evolved into areas they could not have foreseen at the time they got married, the Kleinmans offer these words of encouragement to those standing on the brink of an intramural marriage: "Go for it!"

Wedded Words of Wisdom

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