Campus & Community

Ten from Harvard named HHMI Faculty Scholars

6 min read

Grants back early career scientists in ambitious research

Ten Harvard scientists are among the 84 researchers nationwide named HHMI Faculty Scholars as part of a new initiative by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Simons Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to recognize and support early career scientists who show exceptional promise.

The scholars will receive grants of between $600,000 and $1.8 million over the next five years. In total, the program will award $83 million to researchers from 43 institutions across the United States.

“We are very excited to welcome these accomplished scientists into the HHMI community,” said HHMI’s president, Erin O’Shea. “We’re equally gratified to work alongside our philanthropic partners to help these early career scientists move science forward by pursuing their bold ideas.”

The Harvard winners are:

Emily Balskus, Morris Kahn Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology

Combining chemistry and microbiology, Balskus studies how gut microorganisms interact with one another and their human hosts. She is using this knowledge to design approaches for chemical manipulation of the growth and composition of microbial communities.

Thomas Bernhardt, professor of microbiology and immunobiology

Bernhardt is interested in finding out how bacteria build their cell walls in order to grow and divide. By identifying key enzymes in cell-wall synthesis, his research could help combat drug-resistant infections by providing new targets for antibiotics.

Fernando Camargo, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology, principal faculty at Harvard Stem Cell Institute

Camargo of Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute studies how single cells in the embryo develop into the many cells and complex tissue types that in the adult, using the blood system as a model.  He will develop new tools and technologies to track cells at a very high resolution, which will allow him to map the lineage of every single cell tracing back from the adult cell to its ‘ancestral’ cell, or cell of origin, in the embryo.

“It’s always a great honor to be recognized with this award, and I think it reflects on the hard work and the quality of people in my lab,” said Camargo.

Flaminia Catteruccia, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases

To find new ways to control the spread of malaria, Catteruccia investigates the molecular and genetic mechanisms behind mosquito reproduction and malaria transmission. She has found that disrupting key physiological processes in the mated blood-fed mosquito can both sterilize females and prevent development of malaria parasites.

Victoria D’Souza, professor of molecular and cellular biology

D’Souza is using nuclear magnetic resonance to understand how retroviruses employ various RNA structures to aid in the transcription and translation of their genomes. By mapping the 3-D topology of viral nucleic acids, she hopes to learn more about how these molecules interact with host molecular components and how new therapeutics could potentially interfere with these interactions.

Benjamin Ebert, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS), principal faculty at Harvard Stem Cell Institute

Ebert of Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, focuses on the genetics, biology, and therapy of blood cancers. Scientists have identified a set of genes that are recurrently mutated in a condition called bone marrow failure disorder and other blood cancers. Ebert will study the biology of key genetic lesions, the clinical impact of these mutations, and potential therapeutic targets.

“I feel very honored to receive this support and excited by the flexibility this funding will provide to investigate more exploratory lines of investigation.”

Chenghua Gu, associate professor of neurobiology

Gu is studying how the blood-brain barrier forms and functions. Better understanding of the nearly impermeable barrier could make it easier to deliver drugs to the brain. She is also exploring how neural activity influences the development and function of the blood vessels that supply the brain.

Stephen Liberles, associate professor of cell biology

The vagus nerve connects the brain to many of the body’s internal organs, controlling breathing, heart rate, appetite, blood pressure, and other functions. Liberles is studying how the nerve detects and alerts the brain to diverse stimuli such as nutrients ingested during a meal, inhaled respiratory gases, and toxins and irritants that cause nausea or coughing.

Jayaraj Rajagopal, associate professor of medicine, assistant professor of otolaryngology HMS, principal faculty at Harvard Stem Cell Institute

Rajagopal of Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, examines how multiple, single cells interact as an ensemble and function as a single tissue, using lung tissue as a model. Currently, scientists grow organoids to visualize how cells communicate as they develop, but Rajagopal will develop explant methods to create models that more closely reflect physiology inside the body.  Using modern genetics and imaging techniques to understand how single cells interact with their neighbors will allow Rajagopal to better describe physiology, including the physiology of diseased tissue.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to meet an exceptional group of scientists who I know will improve the quality of my own work. And the grant allows me the freedom to really start new avenues of research for the questions I’m most interested in,” said Rajagopal.

John Rinn, professor of stem cell and regenerative biology and associate professor of pathology, principal faculty at Harvard Stem Cell Institute

Rinn was a pioneer on long noncoding RNA genes in the human genome. He has dedicated his research to understanding how these genes contribute to human health and disease. He further aims to dissect the molecular grammar guiding their functional roles in hopes of finding new avenues of therapeutic intervention.

The grant program was created in response to growing concern about the significant challenges facing young scientists, particularly increased competition for grant funding amid declines in federal support. Within a few years of a new faculty appointment, a researcher’s institutional startup funds typically come to an end. Pressure to secure federal grant money may lead to “safe” grant proposals. As a result, potentially transformative projects can fall by the wayside.

“We are delighted to help enable superb early career scientists to bring transformative innovation to priority global health problems,” said Chris Karp, director of global health discovery and translational sciences at the Gates Foundation.

“This program will provide these scientists with much-needed flexible resources so they can follow their best research ideas,” added David Clapham, HHMI vice president and chief scientific officer.