MISSOULA, MT—University of Montana wildlife biologist and Herbert R. Braithwaite Foundation research grant recipient Dr. James Neuthom has spent his entire $275,000 grant—intended for the study of whirling disease on rainbow trout—on such items as a 15-foot sailboat, scented stationery, and several dozen boxes of chocolate, according to documents he submitted to the foundation Tuesday.
Neuthom is now seeking additional Braithwaite Foundation funds to continue his desperate attempt to win the heart of his 23-year-old research assistant, Betsy Hamilton.
"During the course of my project, I have encountered some unforeseen but truly vital expenses," read the introduction to Neuthom's 47-page project proposal, which details predicted outlays through 2008, most notably an additional $60,000 in "part-time female research-assistant salaries." "This money is needed to continue the very important work I'm doing with Betsy, who is a talented and beautiful young woman."
The application also noted increased travel and laboratory expenses for the upcoming year, including first-class airfare and luxury accommodations for two to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual convention, a powerful telescope "perfect for warm, starry June evenings," and $275 for a custom-made, tailored lab coat.
Representatives for the Braithwaite Foundation are currently reviewing Neuthom's expenditures, and have not yet decided whether to contribute further money to his studies.
"We're impressed with all the energy Dr. Neuthom has poured into this endeavor already, but he insists much, much more work needs to be done before he produces any definitive results," foundation director Ted Sengupta said. "Before funding his new proposal, we'd like to see what discoveries he made while studying 'the effect of moonlight on Montana's native trout populations,' which he chose to research on a quiet, isolated lake 150 miles away from the established site of his study."
"We're sure he has a good reason, but $1,500 for a singing Italian gondolier seems a bit curious," Sengupta added.
Sengupta said that, in the Braithwaite Foundation's long history of funding ecological research, he has never seen an aquatic wildlife study require so many fresh-cut flowers.
Sources at the University of Montana say they have rarely encountered an established researcher as generous as Neuthom, who often spends long hours in the lab with his young assistant, helping her participate in every aspect of the study, even those for which she is not technically qualified. He also frequently offers to drive Hamilton home in the Wildlife Research Center's newly acquired Corvette.
"I thought that grant would last Jim [Neuthom] at least two years, but I simply didn't realize how many hot-air balloon rides, CDs, and spontaneous dinners at tiny French restaurants are required for an in-depth trout study," said UM professor of agriculture Steven Czymedia, who claimed he was "fascinated" by Neuthom's new theory that fine champagne might be directly related to rainbow trout migratory routes. "The subject is obviously very near and dear to his heart. I've never seen him so excited. I wish him the best."
Hamilton, who plans to list her involvement with the project on her medical school applications next year, could not be reached for comment. However, her roommate, Kelly Deem, said she believes Hamilton has enjoyed her experience as a research assistant, since the flexible schedule works around her classes and allows her to spend more time with her fiancé.
According to the Braithwaite Foundation's internal auditor Michael Romero, if Neuthom has misused funds, the organization will take appropriate measures.
"We have a team carefully examining every receipt submitted by Dr. Neuthom over the last few months," Romero said. "If anything untoward has happened here, my assistant, Emily will find it. She's really quite something, you know."