Lost grants may equal research setbacks
Jodi Flaws studies how environmental chemicals affect the female reproductive system, in animals and humans.
Her laboratory at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine focuses on the genes and hormones that regulate development of the ovary and how environmental toxins affect them.
Unfortunately, she will be scaling back some of that work this year.
All of her funding comes from the National Institutes of Health, which recently informed Flaws that one of her grants — a five-year award supposed to provide $250,000 annually — is being cut by 20 percent, or $50,000 a year, because of the federal budget sequester.
That means she won't be hiring a postdoctoral fellow she had planned for the project.
"I have nobody to do some of the work," said Flaws, a professor of comparative biosciences.
On top of that, a special NIH grant she used to hire a minority postdoctoral fellow won't be renewed.
She has one other postdoc funded on a training grant, but she's starting to worry that money may not survive past another year.
In the meantime, she's cutting back on travel, supplies and other expenses to free up money so she can continue to pay two former graduate students who recently finished their doctoral work.
The cuts mean Flaws won't be able to do key studies of certain chemicals that are known to inhibit the ovary's ability to make estrogen. While researchers can study how the chemicals do their damage, they won't be able to take it a step further to see how that affects fertility or other conditions linked with low estrogen, such as osteoporosis or depression, she said.
"That's ultimately the point people care about," Flaws said.
Her lab has been productive, discovering new genetic risk factors for hot flashes, for example. The team is also using animal models to study how chemicals destroy the ovary, and trying to find ways to block chemically induced "oxidative stress," which causes cells in the ovary to die.
"Our hope is that if we could better understand those mechanisms, we could come up with better ways to prevent damage or treat damage," she said.
Flaws' grant funding has been trimmed by smaller amounts in other years, but the past two years have been more severe. The grant affected by the sequester is in its fourth year, "at the time when we're really getting a lot of data and wanting to do a lot of work."
Her plan is to "just keep writing as many grants as I can," but she will likely downsize her lab.
"People won't be able to do as much work as we've been able to do in the past," she said.
Flaws also fears federal cutbacks will dissuade talented graduate students from going into academic research careers.
"A lot of graduate students see the struggle with grants and lack of money, and now this sequester, and some of them are choosing not to pursue a career where they're going to be independent researchers," she said. "A lot of them are choosing to go into policy or government jobs or go into industry where they don't have to worry about grant funding."
Postdoctoral research associate Jackye Peretz hopes to find another postdoctoral position when funding for her job runs out next year. She'd love to work for the CDC, but otherwise will turn to a technician job in private industry, even though those jobs "don't lead to a faculty position," she said.