I met Dr. Tamkun for the first time when I walked into his office located in the Anatomy/Zoology building at Colorado State University. His lab works on understanding the regulation of nerve and muscle electrical excitability at the cellular and molecular levels. He describes it as looking specifically at ion channel cell biology. The coolest part of the lab for him is working with cell biology. This fascination has led Dr. Tamkun and his fellow researchers down many interesting paths, including studying how neuronal ion channels are localized on the cell surface. He and his team use tools like microscopy to image molecules, and they work closely with peers in other fields. Cell biology is becoming a hybrid field among engineering, physical sciences, and the standard biological sciences. They take videos, make new techniques to study cells, and have international researchers participate in their studies.
International collaboration with Japanese labs has been very helpful. Dr. Tamkun also partners with other labs worldwide. Most university level research uses small labs collaborating on a similar goal. The current scientific set up of universities around the world still uses these “mom-and-pop” laboratories for research. This can change depending on how the government funds research. Dr. Tamkun predicts that the current model will change with government spending.
One of Dr. Tamkun’s primary concerns at this time is the future of research at universities. He sees CSU, and other American universities, losing their science funding and their competitive edge. Dr. Tamkun says, “All of us spend more time than we should looking for money to run the research programs.” America uses university labs to research fundamental questions which will impact research and development in larger corporations. “The real basic stuff has to be done primarily at the university level,” said Dr. Tamkun.
We also use university labs to train our scientists. “It’s important to keep the research going not just because of the discoveries, but it’s also a very big component of the training environment here.” The training students receive in research labs will improve their standing when they go to interview for graduate schools. One of the reasons CSU students are competitive for graduate education is due to this training. If research funding continues on its current course, Dr. Tamkun worries there will not be enough support to allow positions for undergraduate students.
Dr. Tamkun believes that investing in research is money well spent. He worries that the federal government will continue to cut research funding as it tries to tighten the budget when it should be focusing on investing as wisely as it can in the country’s future. Funding is down across the board from agencies like the NIH and NSF. This situation has made even excellent ideas participate in a lottery for funding. Out of curiosity I asked Dr. Tamkun if he thought private companies would ever replace some of this lost funding and he told me, “Private companies will never replace federal funding because companies by definition have to focus on profits and doing what they are supposed to be doing as a company.” His answer made me wonder if he would ever consider teaching at the business school. Many inventions we take for granted today were born from research at the university level. This includes transistors, PCR, DNA fingerprinting, and more. Dr. Tamkun, and many universities, thinks the economy will be strengthened by further investment in university research. How important are computers to our economy now? Without university funding the machine you are reading this article on may not have existed.
Dr. Tamkun also informed me of a video that CSU created in conjunction with other universities about the necessity of federal funding for research. The link is http://www.innovationdeficit.org/, and the video received news coverage at http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2014/02/27/us/politics/ap-us-innovation-video.html?_r=3. Please take a look if you’re interested in the future of university science education and its importance.