Q&A: Marian Carlson on Ideas, Money, and Momentum

Photograph of Marian Carlson

Marian Carlson

Senior Scientific Officer Marian Carlson, along with Senior Scientific Officer Carl Rhodes, played a vital role in launching the early career scientist program and selecting the first 50 researchers. Carlson, who joined HHMI in 2008, maintains an active research laboratory at Columbia University, where she studies a family of proteins that plants, animals, and fungi use to change their metabolism and gene activity in response to stress. This year, she was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In a recent interview, she discussed the value of early career support.

Q: Why devote so much energy to scientists who are at the beginning of their careers and haven’t necessarily proven themselves?

A: When people start their careers, it’s important for them to build momentum and not worry about having enough money, but just be able to follow the good ideas they have. When people start in faculty positions after a postdoc, they usually have lots of interesting things they want to do. It’s nice for them to be able to get right in there and do science, which they’ve trained for their whole education, and not end up wasting too much time with writing grants.

Q: Has it always been so difficult for early career scientists to get funding?

A: When I was starting as a scientist in the 1980s, it wasn’t so hard to get grants. Sure I had to write a lot, but I never worried about whether I would have enough funding to do what I wanted to do. And now, the funding climate is just more difficult.

Q: What message is HHMI sending to the research community through this new funding?

A: The point of this program is to help early career scientists have an opportunity to pursue their research, but also to make the statement to other funding organizations that supporting people early in their careers is important, that we should be doing this. This kind of support also encourages younger people to go into science; it tells graduate students and postdocs that they will be funded to do interesting things if they stay in academic science.

Q: What’s one piece of advice you would pass along to early career scientists?

A: I think the very best science involves taking risks, because you’re asking questions about the unknown and taking new approaches or testing new ideas. That’s always risky, but that’s also what’s fun. That’s why people go into science: to discover new things. So I hope these early career scientists not only do excellent science, but also break new ground in new areas, take risks, and go in new directions.

Return to Top

Photo credit: Carlson: Paul Fetters