A $1 million gift from Merck Research Laboratories to Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) will create three new opportunities for research, fellowships, and summer school genomics education. The gift will be distributed over five years to fund three separate departmental and interdepartmental programs.

The gift funds will allow MCB to launch the Merck Pilot Research Program, the Merck Scholars Program, and the Merck Core Educational Support Program.

MCB faculty are hailing Merck’s investment in interdisciplinary research as a groundbreaking step. “This precedent by Merck demonstrates the mutual benefit of collaboration between private industry and academic research, and will encourage other corporate allies to consider this enlightened approach,” said Andrew P. McMahon, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science and chair of MCB.

The first of the new programs, the Merck Pilot Research Program, will provide four $20,000 grants each year to fund one year of initial exploration into novel areas of genomics research. In particular, the support seeks to encourage faculty to pursue riskier projects that, if successful, would enable that investigator to garner additional conventional funding. Projects that involve a collaborative interaction between two or more faculty (either intra- or interdepartmental) will receive a high priority.

“The prospects for the value of this funding are very exciting,” explains McMahon. He recalled a similar program in MCB that existed several years ago, which enabled one of his fellows, Paul Danielian, to develop a model for influencing gene activity in mice. “In only six months following publication of our work, we received over 30 requests for the latest mouse strains we developed using this technology. The work could not have taken place without the initial investment of that earlier program.”

The Merck Scholars Program will provide support of $2,000 each for up to 10 student awards each year to help establish a summer school genomics program at Harvard. The program, duration, funding, timing, and projected number of students for such a summer course is under discussion, and the first course will not start until the summer of 2004.

The Merck Core Educational Support Program will fund two postdoctoral fellows for each of the five years. The Merck fellowships will be available to support fellows in either the third or fourth year, for a single year, to facilitate the completion of their research programs, thereby allowing the fellow to compete more effectively for research positions beyond Harvard.

“Funding for senior postdoctoral fellows – those with over two years of experience – has become increasingly difficult to find,” comments McMahon. “Yet, paradoxically, this is typically the time when fellows are most productive.”

The fellowships are available to any fellow engaged in a project that uses “genomic approaches” in the broadest sense. The awards will be decided annually by a selection committee, which will make its decision on the basis of a proposal submitted by interested fellows from laboratories of members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Terms of the gift were structured collaboratively by McMahon and Mervyn Turner, senior vice president of worldwide licensing and external research at Merck Research Laboratories. “I’m pleased that Merck is able to provide this support,” Turner commented. “I am sure that the needs of both academia and industry are well served by programs of this kind. The fundamental interdisciplinary research that will be enabled by this gift will ultimately translate into benefits for our patients, in ways that we are unable to imagine today.”