|Above the Montana Lab:
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
chance to do excellent research with good support services and bright,
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
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."
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."
Chesebro (left) and Antony Basile
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."
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."
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 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.
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,
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
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.
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."
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."