NIH program helps researchers do what they do best
Loan repayment program gives money to researchers
Steven Carswell had a dream: To find ways to fix the type of problems that cripple communities.
Carswell earned a Ph.D. in sociology and put his research skills to use at a nonprofit that works to reduce substance abuse in Baltimore.
His career ambitions came with a personal cost.
Carswell racked up more than $120,000 in student loans that forced him and his wife, a psychologist with comparable student debt, to put on hold the traditional American dream a house of their own, a family.
There were times when he considered a better-paying career, Carswell said, but in the end, his dedication to research paid off.
With help from a loan repayment program through the National Institutes of Health, Carswell's debt is under control. He and his wife bought a house a year and a half ago and welcomed their son, Ryan, about six months later.
"It's been unbelievable," said Carswell of Potomac. "I don't know how to explain going from a situation where you are facing $100,000 in debt to saying, oh, wow, this is manageable."
The loan repayment program divides a total of $70 million a year among more than 1,000 science researchers at nonprofit universities, hospitals and organizations across the country. The program, in its 10th year, is intended to encourage scientists to continue in their field of study, by helping them pay off up to $35,000 a year of the student loans that the program's director said often compel researchers to opt for higher-paying, private sector jobs.
"Research is like art just as artists must be artists, scientists must be scientists, if you have it in you," said Milton Hernandez, the director of the division of loan repayment at NIH. "We don't want that thwarted by educational debt."
The average debt for indebted medical school graduates in the class of 2010 was almost $158,000; 78 percent of those graduates owed at least $100,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges' 2010 graduate questionnaire.
The loan repayment program partners with early-career researchers who commit themselves to conducting research 20 hours a week for two years in one of five areas: pediatric, health disparities, contraception and infertility, general clinical, and clinical for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.
To qualify, researchers must be affiliated with a nonprofit organization, hospital or university and have a supervisor who can attest that they are meeting their 20 hour a week research requirement.
More than 3,200 people applied for the program's 2010 cycle. About 1,600 scientists received money in 2010. The application period for 2011 closes Nov. 15. Contracts are awarded for two year periods. Researchers are allowed to reapply for the contract, so long as they have outstanding student loans.
Other federal agencies that offer loan repayment programs include the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Department of Agriculture, said Hernandez. The NIH program is part of the agency's federal appropriation.
Dominick Laddy, 30, of Germantown, is finishing the first year of his two-year contract with NIH, which is paying $25,000 a year for him to put toward loans if he sticks with his research for new tuberculosis vaccines.
Laddy graduated in 2008 with a Ph.D. in biology and about $100,000 in loans left over from undergraduate school. He works for Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation in Rockville, where he conducts pre-clinical trials to determine whether a treatment should advance to a human clinical trial.
He said he isn't sure how his work would be possible without help from NIH.
"It's allowed me to really make decisions about my career based on what I want to do, not what I need to do to survive," Laddy said.
The program does not directly benefit NIH the institutes are paying researchers to do work for someone else. But making sure researchers like Laddy are able to work for solutions to problems like TB is central to the agency's mission of improving the health of the nation.
"If we're going to answer our health issues, we have to have to have the people to do it," said Hernandez. "We need to train young scientists so 10, 20, 30 years from now we have a cadre of scientists to attack whatever it is before us."
Carswell said he thinks his work in Baltimore with black youth who are involved with drugs, alcohol, risky sexual relationships and other social pitfalls is in line with NIH's philosophy. The intervention programs he and the Friends Research Institute design for misguided middle schoolers are intended to keep them from becoming adults with drug problems, criminal records and little hope for the future.
The fact that Carswell won't spend the next 30 years paying off student loans is just a bonus.