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Eric Prescott brushed a speck of dust from the lapel of his midnight blue dinner jacket and stepped back to survey the crowd. It was tough to keep a smug smile off his face. There had to be at least three hundred people milling around the grand ballroom of New York's Pierre hotel, sipping champagne and munching hors d'oeuvres from trays circulated by tuxedo-clad waiters. All in his honor. The Lasker Award for "seminal research in elucidating the basis of Alzheimer's disease" was his latest triumph. A fitting tribute to his accomplishments. And an important step toward his ultimate goal.
He excused himself from a small crowd of admirers and went to the bar for another glass of champagne. Then he spotted Donald Moore across the room and gave him a subtle nod. Moore returned the signal and headed toward him, bringing along a thin balding man with a neatly trimmed gray beard. Alfred Bergner, who Moore and Prescott had made sure was invited to the award ceremony, was a kingmaker. One of five Karolinska Institute professors on the Nobel Committee, he had a key voice in conferring the world's highest honor in science and medicine.
Bergner shook his hand. "Congratulations, Eric. A well-deserved award. It's a pleasure to see your work recognized in this way."
Prescott inclined his head. "Thank you, I'm delighted you could be here."
"I am too," Bergner said. "A very pleasant way to conclude my trip to the States."
"A wonderful evening, indeed," Moore said. "But not as outstanding as the banquet we enjoyed in Stockholm thirteen years ago. Do you remember, Alfred?"
"Indeed I do," Bergner said. "The night you received the prize was quite the occasion." He laughed softly. "But now that you've become an administrator, do you still have time to do any research yourself? Or are you too busy managing your institute?"
Moore smiled. "Yes, I'm afraid that being director of an enterprise as large as the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience has taken its toll on my research. Especially in Cambridge, with Harvard and MIT for neighbors. But it brings other rewards, such as facilitating the work of colleagues like Eric and sharing in their success. In fact, I'm hoping to enjoy a repeat of that Nobel banquet, though not in my honor this time."
Bergner inclined his head toward Prescott and winked. "You mean in recognition of our friend here?"
Prescott gave a self-deprecating shrug. "Oh, come now gentlemen, I'd never be so presumptuous."
Bergner snagged a bacon-wrapped scallop from a passing waiter. "No need to be overly modest, Eric. You know you're a strong candidate. And there's absolutely no question that your work has illuminated the fundamental basis of Alzheimer's disease. But before making an award in this area, I think some of my colleagues on the Committee are waiting for the next step. A treatment."
"Which we're working hard to find," Prescott said.
"And even if he doesn't find the drug himself, I assume the Committee realizes that any successful treatment would be based on Eric's genetic engineering of mice that develop Alzheimer's," Moore added.
Bergner nodded. "I think you can feel confident that Eric would share in any award based on the discovery of a drug using his mice. But we can't discount the possibility that a treatment might emerge from some other line of investigation."
Prescott blinked. This isn't where the conversation's supposed to go.
Moore leaned forward and responded before Prescott had a chance to say anything. "I don't see how that would be possible. Everything important in the field is based on Eric's contributions."
"Maybe, but anything can happen," Bergner said. "I had lunch with Karl Meyers last week at the meeting in San Francisco and he introduced me to an interesting young woman."
"Yes, I was there too," Prescott interrupted. "But just to deliver my Kirkland Award Lecture, I had to take off again right after." No reason to miss a chance at self-promotion.
"I heard your talk," Bergner said. "Nice, as always. But anyway, this woman had been a postdoctoral research fellow in Karl's lab. Now she's a faculty member with a lab of her own. What's interesting is that she's worked out a new approach to look for a drug using the cell culture system she and Karl developed in Michigan. Quite independent of your mouse work and very impressive. I believe her name's Pamela Weller, just across town from you, at Harvard's Langmere Institute. Do either of you know her?"
"I know the work she did with Karl, but I've only met her casually at conferences," Prescott said. "The work seems interesting, although I've heard there are a lot of problems reproducing her results."
Moore snorted and waved a hand dismissively. "She's not even tenured, just starting up her own lab. Not someone to take seriously."
Bergner shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not so sure. I have a nose for young scientists. The good ones have a spark, hard to define but I can always tell when it's there. And Pam Weller has it. Eric, maybe you should get to know her."
Prescott was steaming. Did Bergner seriously think this woman was some kind of competition? Ridiculous.
"I'll have to do that," he said.
And keep a close eye on her.
Pam Weller's hands were sweating as she approached Mary O'Connor's office on the tenth floor of the Langmere Institute for Neurological Disease. The twenty-story glass-walled building in the heart of Boston's Longwood Medical Area was Harvard's premiere neuroscience institute. It was home to the offices and laboratories of some fifty faculty members, many recognized as being among the best neuroscientists in the world.
Pam was one of them. At least for the moment. Perhaps this morning's meeting would determine how long that would last. A thirty minute evaluation of my career, complete with the judgment of the senior faculty. A group with the power to determine my future.
She hesitated outside O'Connor's open door. Was she ready for this? Maybe she should have worn slacks and a suit jacket instead of her usual jeans and turtleneck. With her trim figure and long brown hair, jeans made her look more like a graduate student than a thirty-six- year-old faculty member. Stop being silly. This isn't about looks. Let's get it over with.
She knocked and went in.
The office was similar to Pam's own, standard fare for a faculty member at the Langmere. Industrial gray carpet with a U-shaped desk under the window. Filing cabinets and bookshelves with a couple of family pictures along the side walls. A small round conference table toward the front and a whiteboard on the cream-colored wall behind it. A rubber plant in the corner.
O'Connor was roughly fifty and slightly overweight with short graying hair. She was the only woman to have reached the status of tenured full professor at the Langmere. Pam never failed to be impressed by that. It had been even harder for a woman to succeed when O'Connor had made it than it was now.
Saying that she wanted to support young women with the kind of advice she herself had never received, O'Connor had assumed the role of mentor to Pam and the two other women who were assistant professors at the Langmere. Pam met with her once or twice a year to talk about how things were going, usually over lunch or a cup of coffee. Those occasions were relaxed and friendly, and Pam appreciated her advice on navigating the complexities of being a faculty member and directing a research group. But today's meeting was more formal, and O'Connor looked serious as she got up from her desk and moved to the conference table.
Pam took a seat across from her and O'Connor handed her some ten pages of single-spaced text. The title page said, Assistant Professor Pamela Weller: Mid-Tenure Review. The assessment of her performance that she'd been both anticipating and dreading for months. Pam's heart started beating rapidly as she began to scan through it.
"You can keep that and read it later," O'Connor said. "But first let's talk about the highlights. As you know, the Langmere does a complete review of all junior faculty about halfway through the pre-tenure period. The goal is to be helpful. To give you an idea of where you stand and how best you can move forward with your career."
"It sounds like a good idea," Pam said, "but I have to admit it makes me nervous. It feels like being put under a microscope and picked apart. Like a mouse being dissected."
O'Connor leaned forward. "I know this is tough, believe me. And it's just a prelude to what the actual tenure evaluation will be like. But the purpose is to give you advice, not to make a decision about your future at this point."
"I know, and I appreciate your going over it with me. I'd much rather hear where I stand from you than from any of the other senior faculty."
"So take a breath and let's go through it. Do you want some coffee or water first?"
Pam smiled. "Just some water, thanks."
O'Connor got up and retrieved a bottle of water from the undercounter refrigerator next to her desk. She handed it to Pam and took her seat again.
"Okay, the way the process works is that a committee of three tenured professors, including me, have evaluated the progress you've made since you came here four and a half years ago, as well as reviewing your plans for future research. Based on that and talking to colleagues in your field, we've tried to assess your likelihood of getting tenure and advise you on how you can best direct your efforts."
"Can we skip to the bottom line first? What did the committee think my chances are?" Pam asked.
O'Connor reached out and took her hand, squeezing it for a moment.
"We're worried, Pam. Don't take this wrong, we think you could make it, but it seems chancy. You know that only about twenty percent of junior faculty gets tenure here, and it takes a major discovery to do it. Your work seems to be going well, but you haven't hit a home run yet. And you need one soon."
Pam felt herself flush and start to tear up. She took a sip of water and looked out the window. Snowing already. December in Boston.
"Pam c'mon, it's not all bad," O'Connor said. "We know you've accomplished a lot. You've hired two postdoctoral fellows and now two new graduate students have joined your lab. You've gotten a sizable research grant, and you and your postdocs have published three papers in good journals. Plus you're well known and respected by other researchers in your field. Everyone we asked said how good you are."
Pam toyed with one of the leaves on the rubber plant next to her and forced a weak smile. "But you still think I have a problem."
"If we were someplace else, like Tufts or BU, I'd tell you that everything looks great and you'll be fine for tenure in a couple of years. But this is the Langmere Institute and Harvard Medical School. Getting tenure here means you have to be the absolute tops, not just good. And that means you have to score with some high-impact research."
"Sure. But what could be more high impact than the experiments we're doing to find a drug that prevents the development of Alzheimer's?"
O'Connor rolled her eyes. "That would obviously blow everyone away. But only if you turn out to be successful. You've been working on that project for over four years now, and you've got zip so far. It'll have been nothing but a waste of effort if you continue to come up empty- handed. We think it's time to shift your effort to something that's more likely to get results. While there's still time to get a couple of the slam- bang publications you need for tenure."
Pam felt the heat of anger begin to rise in her. This project had been her focus for over ten years, ever since her mother started showing signs of memory loss and Pam changed the direction of her research from infectious disease to neuroscience. The only way she knew how to fight back. Finding a treatment was the whole point, the reason she was in this business. And the committee's advice was to do something else!
She sat up straight and kept her voice firm.
"You've got to believe that trying to find a drug against Alzheimer's is important enough to be worth the effort. It's been my goal ever since I developed the brain cell culture system, back when I was a postdoc with Karl Meyers. You know how excited everyone was when we were able to get cells in culture to produce Alzheimer's plaque and die, just like in a patient's brain. I realized immediately that it gave us a powerful new way to test for drugs. That was a big part of the research I proposed when I got the job here, and I think we have a good chance of succeeding. But it's a long-term effort, not something that's going to happen overnight."
Could they really not want me to work on finding an Alzheimer's drug? That's crazy.
"It's great that you're optimistic about finding a drug, but you've only got two more years to make that a reality. Otherwise you're going to be looking for a new job. And think of the competition you're up against. Eric Prescott over at the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience must have dozens of postdocs trying to find the kind of drug you're hoping for. If he succeeds before you do, you're finished."
"I understand. But you know perfectly well that the screening system we've developed is much better than what Prescott or anyone else has. It took my first postdoc more than two years to adapt my cell culture system to a format we can use for rapid drug screening, but he's done it. Now I've got my second postdoc working with him and the two of them can test thousands of compounds in the time Prescott's whole army can test only dozens."
"I've met your first postdoc. George, right? He seems bright, always asks good questions at seminars. Who's the second?" O'Connor asked.
"Holly Singer. She's very good. She got her PhD in Ross Levin's lab at Berkeley. George already had the screening system going when she joined us, so I asked her to work with him on testing candidate drugs."
"I know Ross, he does nice stuff," O'Connor said. "She should be a good addition to your group. But still, what if nothing comes from your drug screen? The committee thinks you should drop it and get your people working on something more solid."
"I can't do that! We're in the middle of testing the whole collection of drugs the Langmere chemical library has available. That gives us over a hundred thousand possibilities. I'm not quitting now."
O'Connor sighed and held up her hands in resignation. "Alright, I know how much this means to you. And of course the committee's advice is just that. Advice. What you do with it is up to you. But at least think about it, okay? We're worried that you're risking your career on a project that's not going to pay off."
Pam took the stairs down two flights from O'Connor's office, stopping at the kitchenette she shared with the four other faculty members on her floor to make a cup of tea.
What the hell is wrong with these people? I'm getting close and they just want me to quit. Or lose my job.
Once she was back in her own office, she sat at her desk and scanned through the report. It didn't say anything more or less than what O'Connor had told her. And she couldn't deny that she was upset. The possibility of being denied tenure was scary. She'd have to leave the Langmere and find another job, probably at some second-rate university. Or worse, she might be forced out of science entirely.
She took a sip of the hot tea and pondered her options. But there really weren't any. She wasn't going to let some stupid committee make her give up on finding an Alzheimer's drug just because they thought it was too risky.
She put the report down and sat back in her chair, staring at it for a moment. Then she finished her tea, picked up the report, and threw it into the blue recycling container under her desk. She'd gone into research to make a difference, not to follow the crowd.
Eric Prescott sat back on the beige leather couch in his office, admiring the awards hanging on his wall. The Lasker Award, now nicely framed and mounted, was the newest addition to his collection. Only the Nobel was still missing. Damn their hesitation! He was the leading neuroscientist of his generation, with an endowed professorship at the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience, more than six million dollars a year in funding for his laboratory, a large research group of some three dozen graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, multiple publications in the most prestigious journals, and all of the other major awards he wanted. Not to mention the largest office in the Institute, except for the Director's.
"The Lasker looks good up there, Eric."
Prescott turned to see Donald Moore smiling at the door, wearing his signature red and blue bow tie and rumpled tweed jacket.
"Thanks, Don. And thanks again for your help in getting it. I know you pushed the committee for me."
"No problem. What's good for you is good for the Institute."
Moore took a seat in one of the leather armchairs across from Prescott. "I actually wanted to touch base on the next one. I'm working on this year's Nobel nomination."
Excerpted from "The Prize"
Copyright © 2017 Geoffrey M. Cooper.
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