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by Celia Hooper

Above the Montana Lab: the Bitterroots

Imagine living in Shangri-Laa shimmering, legendary trout-stream river valley poised between two spectacular mountain ranges that make the winters mild and the summers temperate . . . . A place where people don't lock their houses or even bother to roll up their car windows, much less install The Club . . . . A place where you can find parking after 9:30 a.m. and you don't even need a sticker or a hanger. Now imagine that, in this paradise, you also get all the perks of being an intramural scientistthe chance to do excellent research with good support services and bright, energetic colleagues.

It's not a daydream; it's the Rocky Mountain Laboratories.

RML, a Hamilton, Montana, outpost of NIAID, celebrated that institute's 50th anniversary this summer. The NIH Catalyst used this as an excuse to visit the place and find out, if you will pardon the pun, what makes it tick.

As RML scientist-emeritus Willy Burgdorfer (who discovered Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete that causes Lyme disease) tells it, the facility that would eventually become RML owes its origins to a mysterious western Montana outbreak at the turn of the century of what was called black measles or spotted fever. As dozens of settlers and pioneers moving through the Bitterroot Valley perished, Howard Taylor Ricketts was summoned from the University of Chicago and determined that the ailment was being spread by infected wood ticks. State and federal public health officials, working out of a shack in the area, launched prevention and control efforts. They went on to break important ground in understanding ticks and their anatomy and role in spreading diseases, as well as vector-parasite relationships. These health officials eventually produced a vaccine that prevented death from Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In the first three decades of the century, the lab pursued studies of five additional tick-borne diseases: tick paralysis, tularemia, Colorado tick fever, tick-borne relapsing fever, and Q fever. In 1928, the labby then housed in a more modern research buildingwas sold to the federal government. As far as Burgdorfer is concerned, "Tick-borne diseases were and always will be the prime reason the [Rocky Mountain] Lab exists."
Yesterday: Tick-borne disease researchers, circa 1915, at precursor lab near Victor, Montana, run by the state and the Public Health Service.
Vaccine development, circa 1925, in old schoolhouse lab. (Caption information provided by Marshall Bloom.)
Today: RML Main Entrance Modern Lab
Bruce Chesebro (left) and Antony Basile
But in the past 50 years, the lab's focus of research has expanded beyond tick-borne diseases. RML's fortunes have waxed and waned and right now seem to be in ascendance: With a current staff of about 160, a massive $25 million renovation of the laboratories and animal facilities is underway to bring them up to modern building codes. New staff, including a new lab chief, are being recruited. RML scientists are excited about their research, and visitors and would-be collaborators are venturing out to NIAID's loveliest summering grounds. For example, in mid-July, Anthony Basile, a neuropharmacologist from NIDDK was out at RML to give a talk on his work and explore the possibilities of collaborating with RML's Bruce Chesebro on studies of AIDS dementia using a mouse model Basile has developed. Basile's lectureone of five at RML that weekwas enthusiastically attended by a roomful of interested scientists. "These people are all really top-flight," Basile said. "The best in their fields. I've been pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the work."

NIAID Scientific Director Thomas Kindt defines the focus of RML labs fairly broadly as being infectious disease, often involving animal models. But beyond that, he is loath to shoe-horn the research into a narrower slot. Kindt says, as with the new lab chief being recruited in the area of bacteriology, NIAID picks outstanding scientists "with their field in mind, but then we give them the freedom to follow the best research opportunities" just as would be the case in Bethesda. The result is a slightly eclectic mix (see "RML Science Sampler,") of bacteriology, virology, and some immunology. "We like to keep the emphasis on fewer rather than many things so that there is a synergy among the groups" at RML, Kindt says. "They don't cover every area that we do here in Bethesda."
Bill Hadlow


If you ask scientists at RML what they like about the place, for the most part their answers are similar to the answers you'd get from satisfied researchers anywhere. For tenure-track investigator Sue Priola, the best thing about RML is "the scrapie research group. We get along and interact well," she says. "It is small, productive, with great exchange of ideas. The science is the biggest plus." Retired veterinary pathologist Bill Hadlow says his research, including work on Aleutian mink disease, "couldn't have been done elsewherecertainly not in Bethesda. For the bulk of the animal work, this was the ideal place. You had or could get facilities [for research animals] right at the back door." Several senior scientists interviewed by The Catalyst cited the outstanding animal research facilities as a key factor in the success of their work.

To other scientists, various aspects of the locale are a definite advantage. Investigator Tom Schwan, who studies molecular adaptations of disease-causing bacteria as they move from ticks to mammals, says the best thing about RML is "having this type of research facility in this type of environment." Chesebro says if he lived and worked elsewhere, he'd probably use up more of his personal leave for vacation each year, whereas in Hamilton he can strike out for prime recreation areas and be there in a matter of minutes after work or on the weekends. Chesebro is one of the favorite rock-climbing companions of Steve Porcella, a research fellow in the Laboratory of Microbial Structure and Function and a semiprofessional rock climber who has published books and articles detailing ascents of peaks in California and Montana. Marshall Bloom, an investigator who has followed Hadlow's tradition in pursuing Aleutian mink disease, is an avid angler and passionate local leader in conservation. Some scientists mention times they were able to recruit a great postdoc either because of the proximity of skiing and other outdoor attractions, or because an NIH stipend goes farther in Montana than Maryland.

But other staffincluding librarian Kate Oliver who moved to Hamilton a year ago from Bethesda for the broad challenges of running her own scientific libraryare happy enough to live in lovely surroundings, but haven't become enmeshed in outdoor pursuits. Says Kindt, "If it is necessary for you to go to the opera every week, you would not live there, but otherwise RML has pretty much the same people" as Bethesda. "There may be more intense interest in the out-of-doors," he adds, "but that is not a necessary trait."

Although Hamilton, with a population of about 4,500, may lack first-rate cultural attractions and Bethesda's diverse selection of great restaurants, there are compensatory features, according to RML scientists. Bloom points out that more academic and cultural opportunities are available in Missoula, about a 45-minute drive from Hamilton. And when artists and celebrities do come to the areaas did Pulitzer Prize­winning author Jared Diamond in mid-Julythere's a much better chance of getting close to them and having a meaningful personal exchange. "You don't get that at the Kennedy Center," Bloom observes.

Bloom sees the real advantage of RML's setting in the fact that its scientists are very visible in the tiny community and thus have a unique opportunity to communicate science to the public. "You talk about your work with people at the gas station, the grocery, the bait shop," Bloom says. "You are in a good position to communicate with the community at large about what science is good for. With so much anti-intellectualism in the world . . . . we need to communicate about science. Here we have a better opportunity to do that, compared with either a university or Bethesda." Other scientists find Hamilton is much less stressful than big cities, with a low crime rate and good public schools enlivened by energetic parent and teacher involvement.

From all signs, says Kindt, the community returns the lab's affection, despite the fact that RML scientists study deadly diseases and rely on research animals. Bloom believes that Montana culture, grounded in ranching, farming, hunting, and fishing, fosters an understanding of the importance of disease research and the correct presumption that research animals will be treated humanely. "The nice thing about [Hamilton] is that there is a community involvement that is very strong," Kindt says. Local newspapers give extensiveand favorablecoverage to lab events, including groundbreaking a year ago for the lab's renovation, at which the mayor of Hamil-ton spoke. Kindt says RML staff have been updating the community progress on the renovation and how construction may affect them.
Tom Schwan


There are some disadvantages to life at RML. A key concern for Kindt is keeping RML scientists from being isolated in their Shangri-La. Through frequent videoconferenced staff meetings, lab chiefs' meetings, and other formal and ad-hoc connections and an NIAID-wide principal investigators' meeting every 18 months, RML scientists seem to be reasonably well plugged-in to NIAID. Broadcasts of the Wednesday Afternoon Lectures are available but poorly attended at the lab. More popular is RML's own lecture series and an open invitation to all RML staff to attend the annual lab meeting of Stanford's hematopoiesis pioneer, Irv Weissman. Weissman's lab meeting is held on a nearby ranch that he shares with University of Washington (Seattle) scientist Leroy Hood and Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Kindt makes funds available to bring RML postdocs to Bethesda for the Research Festival and other meetings. "I strongly encourage every fellow to come to campus at least once during their tour at RML," says Kindt, who personally visits Hamilton two or three times per year.

As a result of these efforts, scientists at RML say that connectedness to professional colleagues has been reduced to a question of personality, just as elsewhere. "With the electronic technologye-mail, videoconferencingand travel, isolation is now self-imposed," says Bloom. "I know people at the NIH Bethesda campus who are more isolated from what's going on around them than people here. . . . It's possible to be fully connected here or totally isolated there." Librarian Oliver says she has managed to get the RML library well connected to electronic and interlibrary loan resources from academic libraries in the region as well as the NIH Library in Bethesda. The real problem is that for her personally, western Montana is remote from friends and familypretty much a full day's journey away. "There's quite some expense getting in and out of Montana," says Oliver. Researcher Schwan concurs: "The worst thing is the distance you have to travel to get to colleagues. But I don't let it stop me."

Chesebro says it would be nice to have the luxuriant selection of colleagues from all scientific disciplines that are represented at a major medical centerclinicians, chemists, neurobiologists, and mathematical modelers, for example. Water-fountain meetings with a diverse range of people can lead to serendipitous discoveries of solutions. But he notes that there's only so much time; if he had a greater diversity of colleagues with whom to chat, he'd probably have less time for each.
Willy Burgdorfer
"I would always come back."

A better setting for casual conversation is among the improvements planned in the renovation that will include an interior courtyard connecting individual lab buildings. The original plan targeted only electrical and air-handling infrastructure, Kindt says, but when it was discovered that none of the labs' walls were up to modern code for earthquake-prone regions and that there was lead paint and asbestos to remove, the project grew into the present plan, which will replace or overhaul every lab by the year 2001.

But Burgdorfer says even the present facilities are hardly a drawback. "The renovation will add to our comfortable quarters, though I am one of the few who appreciate the research facilities out here" as they are. "I have set up labs under conditions you wouldn't believe," he recalls. "I've dissected mosquitoes with a toothpick in the tropics. . . . Here, everything is furnished for you."

Ultimately, Burgdorfer says, it is not fancy facilities or great hiking and waterfalls that determine the fate of NIAID's Montana outpost. It's "the intellectual fascination" and the lab's ability to recruit and retain scientists who will sustain the fascination and serve as magnets, attracting ideas and collaborators from all over. RML has been for Burgdorfer what the unofficial slogan for the Bitterroot Valley claims the area is: "The Last Best Place." "I wouldn't trade this for any other area," Burgdorfer says, referring as much to the lab's research as the place where it is conducted. "I've gone abroad a lot (with extended stays in Egypt, London, and Czechoslovakia), "but I would always come back."

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