Why do human bodies work the way they do? Medical researchers ask these questions and then strive to find the answers.

Douglas Yee, M.D., a medical oncologist and director of the Masonic Cancer Center at the University of Minnesota (www.cancer.umn.edu), has spent his career treating breast cancer patients and deciphering how breast cancer works.

His research is based on the hypothesis that breast cancer cells will respond to a polypeptide hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF) in the same way they respond to other hormones, like estrogen. Yee leads a laboratory that includes Ph.D. scientists and another physician. Six to eight drugs developed to target this hormone are currently being tested in clinical trials.

Making A Difference

"You can discover things in the laboratory that will make a difference for the patient with the disease," Yee says. "Maintaining both a laboratory and a clinical practice helps me understand both the clinical problems and our deficiencies in dealing with the problems. We can then ask questions in the laboratory to come up with solutions."

Those who would seek federal grants to finance their research are better off with an M.D. or a Ph.D. degree, according to Yee. Those who hold a master's degree in public health are less likely to land federal funding for their research, he says.

Would-be physicians and Ph.D. researchers can expect to spend up to 12 years preparing for a research career, Yee says. The average age of a first-time principal investigator, or the primary researcher in charge of a large grant, is 42, according to the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov).

More Funding, More Jobs

On the plus side, increased federal funding for medical research will likely lead to more research positions, according to Yee. "When there's a lot of funding, there is a greater ability to hire new faculty because medical schools and health centers are able to take a bet on a promising trainee," he says.

At the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center, Yee says Ph.D. researchers start at $75,000 to $90,000, while physicians who perform research and see patients start at more than $100,000. Ph.D. scientists may also work for biopharmaceutical companies, both large and small for more money and positions that are not dependent on federal grants.

A $292 million building at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center slated for construction in July 2011 will likely yield new research positions. Faculty will use the facility to conduct interdisciplinary research in areas such as cancer of the breast, lung, colon and prostate; heart disease; Alzheimer's disease; brain and nerve disorders; infectious diseases; and immunology, according to the university.