Chapter 7: THE NIH

BETHESDA, MARYLAND

Four Years Ago 

In July 2021, Campbell had approached Garcia at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The NIH is a sprawling campus that he knew well from working there after finishing graduate school.

It had been a winding journey from MIT to now becoming an independent contractor. During school, he had been living with his partner, Susan. Keeping their breakup friendly, they had one last dinner together before he left Cambridge. Both teared up. Then he gifted her a bottle of her favorite Napa port. 

For a while, he had called Susan to ask after Max, her dog. Then Bethesda and the NIH consumed his attention.They assigned him a lab with a mentor, an MD/ PhD who did not see patients and whose research was in a rut. To his amazement, his mentor stubbornly ignored his suggestions.

Disappointed, he left and joined a medical school as junior faculty. Like a tour guide in an adventure park, he guided students and doctors in their lab projects. In return, they gave him excellent reviews as a teacher. 

The school’s Faculty Club was a building on the National Register of Historic Places: dignified wooden moldings, vintage chandeliers and portraits on the walls. One day, he overheard a school dean. 

Her face flushed pink and beamed with authority. She exclaimed, “These MD/ Phds are trying to do two different things well: practice medicine and pursue research. Would you expect someone to be an equally skilled Navy captain and Air Force pilot? Ridiculous.” 

He had told the head of his lab about her rant. He laughed. “She’s unhappy about the latest budget. If that money were coming to her, she’d be singing a different tune.” 

The lab director added, “There have been rumors about her lack of credentials. But David, you just need to mind your own business around here — or the medical school politics will drive you crazy.”

Then his grant application to the NIH fell through. He could have stayed and worked on other projects but left instead and started his own consulting business. One of his first projects was for Michael Kochanski, connecting with him on a career networking website.

Kochanski was a Polish immigrant in Chicago with a property management company who had hopped on the tech bandwagon and invested in a  bio-computing startup. The venture had attracted Drukker, a mid-sized California company. For their buyout offer, Kochanski asked Campbell’s to value the technology.

The sale was a success. Contract terms included a slot for Kochanski on Drukker’s Board, he next asked Campbell to help a Drukker client to build a new clinic, in Saburia, Africa. 

“David, Saburia’s no paradise,” Kochanski had told him. “The country’s just a desert, except for where the river runs and some scenic mountains on the Southern border. Its Eastern coast is strategically located on the Red Sea. Soria Medical’s new clinic on the military base will provide health services. This is where it gets interesting: it will also be a site for clinical research trials.”

Kochanski continued, “The royal family has quite the story, saying they’re descended from the ancient Pharaohs. They returned to power after a coup.”

Campbell had pulled up information about the tiny country online, an official page describing scenic geography,  endangered species like the lyuma cat and a safe destination for tourism. It boasted that King Mohammed Saburi spent generously on programs to help his people. Pictures of smiling children accompanied a description of public schools with free education and meals.

Skeptical of official propaganda, Campbell then found a profile of King Mohammed in a snarky online gossip site and discovered that they had attended the same boarding school in New England, StarHall. After his father died, the king transitioned from Italian suits to comfortable white robes of denizens of desert kingdoms, still wearing Italian shoes like one former Pope.

So Campbell then returned  to the NIH campus to help Soria to recruit a cancer researcher for their new clinic, a serious challenge given the obscure location in Africa. At the NIH, Campbell looked online and also scanned the posters on the ubiquitous bulletin boards in the halls of many of the labs. 

He first saw Garcia at a small presentation, a scruffy man in his mid-thirties at the time, Liking a sharp question the scientist asked and then calling a private investigator for a background check, Campbell went up to Garcia to introduce himself a few days later.

Garcia was eating alone at the end of a long table in the cafeteria.

“Hi,” he said to Garcia,  “I liked your question the other day about the receptor, B-071. OK if I sit down?” 

Garcia looked up and nodded, shadows under his eyes.

“I used to be a postdoc in Dr. Jansen’s lab,” he told Garcia, letting in a subtle Texan drawl, “down the hall from Kelly, the girl who presented the data.” “The girl” was actually Dr. Kelly Ho, an established scientist. But fitting people’s stereotypes on this diverse campus sometimes made his job more manageable. It defined expectations.

“I’m Manny Garcia,” said the other man,  “a post-doc in Dr. Ernst Dietrich’s lab.” 

After describing his research, Garcia admitted that he was actually job-hunting. “My grant ran out,” he said, looked around as if expecting the world to stop.

“I remember working here, Manny, just how stressful the grant application process is…”

“Yeah, I had a couple of new applications,” Garcia said.  “One didn’t even get scored. Dietrich told me to expect that. He was quite critical of my proposal.”

The lunch hour was getting late. Hunched over, Garcia picked at a sagging slice of carrot cake with his fork and sipped more cold coffee. “The other application failed eventually also. But two other proposals out of our group were funded. So Dietrich’s lab will go on.

“That’s how the game is played,” Garcia added softly. “But now for me, no money, no funding, no job.”

“Tell me about your unscored application?” Campbell asked.

Eyes lighting up, Garcia described it: “a novel approach — using artificial intelligence — to analyze the immortalization of cancer cells and strategies they evolve to defeat the body’s defenses.

“But Dietrich’s research is on premature labor,” Garcia said. “ Still, on this big campus, I thought I could pull together the resources and equipment for my idea too.”

Garcia continued, “Dr. Dietrich resented my attention to my project, saying I’m here to work on his research  mission: ‘reducing the number of premature births,’ he says, ‘an agenda that’s already under threat by budget cuts.’  So his train now leaves me behind at the station.”

A  thin young man swept his broom around the empty cafeteria chairs and approached the two men. David waved at him. “We’re getting ready to leave too. Sorry, give us just a few more minutes.” 

Swiveling away in a dance move, the masked janitor said nothing, listening to music from invisible speakers. Like Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, what dreams was he cooking up between his ears?

Garcia did not appear to notice that it was time to leave. Looking down shamefaced, he said, “When none of my applications were funded, Dietrich brought down the hammer on me and my ‘bizarre’ theories.”

“Manny, do you have a family to support?” Campbell asked gently, though he knew the answer from the investigator. 

Garcia did not lift his gaze, tracing lines on the table with his fingertips. “My wife died from cancer.  Her name was Pia.” He examined the uneven edges of his fingernails. “She even made a trip to the US for help, and we looked at many treatment programs.

 “That’s what motivated me to write this grant that was rejected.”

Sorcerer’s Apprentice was now vacuuming a far corner, fast dance moves in his footwork to turn around toward them to finish.

Campbell got up. “We have to go, Manny, e-mail me that grant request they rejected. I want to see what it says.”

Back in his car, Campbell read a new email. But it wasn’t from Garcia.  Kochanski had written: 

“Plans in Africa are really cooking now. I just met royal rep in Saburian embassy here in Chicago, and a Doctor B. (why are Indian names so long?) from Soria Clinics. 

“Our baby tech we sold to Drukker is really taking off, David. So inspiring to go to Drukker meetings, hear about cutting edge discoveries. 

“Then I talk to Soria leadership about the lack of similar progress in treating cancer — despite daily news feed of miracles in our media, from our modern gods of governments, academic centers and corporations.

“No, no, no, fundamental drivers of the human quest are the thirst for knowledge, adventure, glory, power and riches, always has been. As for the greater good of humanity, that’s a retirement project for elderly people.

“The young medical scientists now see few rewards for their labors, neither credit nor profit. Graying shrunken minds — blind and obsolete — trample the bloom of the brilliant young genius.

“David, start-ups like the one we sold to Drukker give me hope that we can make breakthrough progress in medicine too. Human ingenuity shines brightest in the darkest times.” 

He wondered if some of this excited note was lifted from somewhere else. Parts did not sound like the man he knew.

Garcia’s email was waiting when he returned to his hotel, keeping him up late that night, intrigued in a way he had not felt in some time. Messages bounced between him and Garcia: his questions and Garcia’s answers.

They met again at a bar in Bethesda. There was still light outside. 

Over beers, Campbell asked, “So your wife’s passing motivated you?”

Garcia nodded. “Pia was in Argentina when she got sick. I was here in the U.S.,  going to move her and our son to here after I was a little settled.

“Then one day she went to the hospital in Buenos Aires. Appendicitis, we thought. But when the surgeons operated, it was ovarian cancer, spread everywhere, hopeless. After she passed— here he hesitated to draw a sharp breath— my son and my mother went to live in France. They’re still in France, but Jorge will move to Chicago to stay with my sister and her future husband soon until my job situation is settled.

“To say the least, that’s not ideal, my family…I mean.” Garcia grimaced. His eyes were moist. “I had to watch my castle burn.”

“Sorry, man, I can’t imagine.”

He turned to the technical specifics of Garcia’s research proposal.

Now in his happy zone, Garcia eagerly explained details and then leaned back and put his hands behind his head. “I always thought emotions detracted from science. Maybe my distress over Pia was a hindrance when I wrote my grant proposal,  just a blind stab into the unknown, but you know, I wasn’t even asking for a lot of money…”

“Well, the NIH has a flat-lined budget.” Campbell did not add that frustrated scientists like Garcia were low-hanging fruit for more innovative private enterprises.“The NIH has to feed their own first. I think those crooks and cronies are a waste of my taxpayer dollars for sure.”

Garcia made a face. “They certainly have managed to support Dietrich’s lab well for decades.”

Pleased about angering Garcia, Campbell went on, “But then, commercial, industrial research is just for shortsighted profits for the next year or two, so there are not many breakthrough discoveries there either.

“Eventually, the government tells the taxpayer that their bureaucratic meddling with science will translate into cures for patients blah blah blah …”.

“Yes,” Garcia said earnestly. “There is basic research like the kind Dietrich does. But you know, the data out in the universe is endless. One could make fascinating discoveries for a lifetime that make no difference in anyone’s life. Dietrich has published hundreds of papers, some quite interesting, but despite that our neonatal ICUs are as full as ever with premature babies.”

Campbell raised his beer and proposed, “Breakthroughs come from the young like us, not old-timers like Dietrich. Never trust a scientist over thirty, right, or maybe forty in our case?

“Seriously, Manny, what about all the billions that Americans unquestioningly give all our nonprofits. Have you looked at the War on Cancer Society website? Always a new research breakthrough they say, right? Another promotional ad with a cute bald kid and a movie star?

“Manny, what about the reports of dropping cancer mortality rates? If you discover cancer earlier, sure, it’s curable. Or maybe some cancers just go away on their own? Those ‘statistics’ didn’t help Pia?”

Garcia’s eyes met Campbell’s cautiously. They looked around quickly to see who else was within earshot.

“I have a proposal for you, Manny Garcia,” he said, lowering his voice.

“I’m listening,” Garcia responded.

Next Chapter ⟶

⟵ Previous Chapter