Science & Tech

Five at Harvard named HHMI Early Career Scientists;

7 min read

Ten percent of all such appointments nationwide

Five Harvard scientists are among 50 young scientists  nationwide who will have their work supported for the next six years by a new initiative from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

HHMI today announced that the selected scientists are at 33 institutions across the United States and have led their own laboratories for two to six years. An HHMI statement described the young researchers as “energetic and passionate about a broad range of scientific questions… at a career stage that many consider to be a scientist’s most productive — and most  vulnerable.”

Three of the Harvard researchers – Amy Wagers, Konrad Hochedlinger, and Kevin Eggan – are members of the faculty of Harvard’s new inter-School Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and are Principal Faculty members of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.  The other two Harvard scientists named HHMI Early Career Scientists are Bradley Bernstein, a Harvard Medical School (HMS) assistant professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Rachel I. Wilson, an assistant professor of neurobiology at HMS.

Each of the new HHMI Early Career Scientists will receive a six-year appointment to the  institute. HHMI will provide the researchers with his or her full salary, benefits, and a research budget of $1.5 million over the six-year appointment. The institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman hailed the selection of the young Harvard researchers as  “a great day for these five young investigators, and a great day for Harvard. Receiving the support accorded an HHMI Early Career Scientist relieves Kevin, Konrad, Amy, Rachel, and Brad of many of the distracting stresses with which most young scientists struggle, and allows them each to fulfill their unique intellectual promise,” he said.

“Similarly, having the Howard Hughes Medical Institute select five young
Harvard researchers for this honor accorded to only 50 people nationwide
speaks volumes about the strength of our science, and the kinds of young
scientists we have been attracting and nourishing,” Hyman added.

The  HHMI statement said that “in today’s constrained research funding environment, many early career faculty find it difficult to establish and develop their research programs. They often launch their own labs with start-up funds from their host institution. That support is provided with the expectation that the scientist will establish his or her own research program with independent funding.

“The creativity and energy that researchers bring to starting their own labs can quickly be sapped by the time-consuming and often frustrating quest for funding,” the statement continues. “Within a few years of a new faculty appointment, a researcher’s institutional start-up funds typically come to an end. Pressure to secure federal grant money may lead to  ‘safe’ grant proposals. As a result, creative and potentially transformative research projects may fall by the wayside.”

The HHMI appointments come at a particularly crucial time in the ongoing struggle for research funding. While NIH has received an infusion of Economic Recovery Act funding, the agency’s support for biomedical research has been flat for more than five years, and in real dollars has decreased by more than 13 percent.

Because of that situation, competition for funding has become ever stiffer, and the funding that has been available has tended to go to more established researchers with “safer” proposals. In fact, the average age at which researchers now receive their first R01 grant, the major grant that is seen as establishing their independent careers, is 43.

Commenting on her receipt of the HHMI appointment, neurobiologist Rachel Wilson echoed precisely that point. “This award makes it possible for me to pursue research directions that are more adventurous than the research I would otherwise be able to pursue. It’s a difficult funding climate right now, and so I feel especially lucky and grateful for the financial security this award provides to my lab for the next few years,” she said.

Similarly, Konrad Hochedlinger, a principal faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, whose lab is at MGH, noted that “support from the HHMI will allow me to go into directions which I would have otherwise not been able to do in the current funding situation. For example, I will be able to invest in new tools and technologies to study pluripotency and reprogramming and hire people to bring new expertise into my lab,” he said. “I am very excited to be part of this prestigious institute [HHMI] and look forward to working together with my new colleagues.”

“We saw a tremendous opportunity for HHMI to impact the research community by freeing promising scientists to pursue their best ideas during this early stage of their careers,” said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. “At the same time, we hope that our investment in these 50 faculty will free the resources of other agencies to support the work of other outstanding early career scientists,” Cech said in explaining HHMI’s investment of about $200 million in the 50 young researchers.

HHMI announced the new Early Career Scientist program a year ago, and launched a  nationwide competition “seeking applications from the nation’s best early career scientists. Those working in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research and areas of chemistry, physics, computer science, and engineering that are directly related to biology or medicine were invited to apply. The competition drew more than 2,000 applicants. To maximize the impact of HHMI’s support, individuals who were selected in the competition cannot hold more than one early career award from another agency or foundation,” the institute explained.

Commenting on the researchers selected for the award, Jack Dixon, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer, said, “These scientists are at the early stage of their careers, when they are full of energy and not afraid to try something new. They have already demonstrated that they are not apt to play it safe — and we hope they will continue to do something really original.”

Harvard Medical School’s Bradley Bernstein, who is affiliated with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said the HHMI six-year, nonrenewable appointment gives “our laboratory a wonderful opportunity to pursue hypotheses and potentially risky new research directions aimed at understanding how genome function is regulated in mammalian development and disease.”

And all three HSCI Principal Faculty members researchers noted that, in addition to allowing them to do research they would otherwise not have the funding to pursue, they are, as Kevin Eggan put it, excited that friends and scientific colleagues in HSCI have been selected. “It speaks to the strength of the new department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology” that three members of the same department were selected.” said Eggan For me, this  [appointment]means that aspects of human embryonic stem cell line derivation and research that still can’t be funded by the federal government will be able to continue in my laboratory.”

“I am thrilled and honored by this opportunity to join such a distinguished group of scientists,” said Amy Wagers, whose laboratory is at the Joslin Diabetes Center.  “The support of the HHMI will ensure that I can continue to pursue new and creative directions in my research, which I hope will bring new perspectives in stem cell biology and tissue regeneration. I am particularly happy to share this honor with two colleagues in the SCRB department, Konrad Hochedlinger and Kevin Eggan.  The three of us established our labs at roughly the same time, and have collaborated and supported one another throughout, so it’s a great joy to be entering this new community with them as well.”

Finally, said Wagers, “I am thankful for the support and mentorship I’ve received from all my colleagues at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; the open and interactive environment fostered by the HSCI was a tremendous help to me in getting my lab started, and continues to enhance my research on a daily basis.”