Predicting COVID-19 variants. Forecasting earthquakes. Promoting regeneration in mammals. These are the kinds of high-risk, high-impact quests Harvard researchers are taking on, with help from the Star-Friedman Challenge for Promising Scientific Research. Established in 2013 with a gift from James A. Star ’83 and expanded funding from Josh Friedman ’76, M.B.A. ’80, J.D. ’82, and Beth Friedman, the challenge provides generous, critical seed funding for ambitious projects in the life, physical, and social sciences that might not otherwise receive grants.
“This year again we received a large number of exciting proposals to the Star Friedman Challenge from various Schools across the campus,” said Catherine Dulac, Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Lee and Ezpeleta Professor of Arts and Sciences, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and chairman of the faculty review committee awarding this year’s winners, which she called “inspiring and cutting-edge projects that address a great diversity of scientific questions.”
On Wednesday, faculty members leading the seven projects selected for funding this year — Jonathan Abraham, Andrew Davies, Roger Fu, Sophie Helaine, Ya-Chieh Hsu, Kaighin McColl, and Julia Mundy — will speak about their research in a virtual event open to the Harvard community.
The researchers provided the Gazette with a glimpse into their work, its potential impact, and why funding “challenges” like this are so crucial for research.
Profiling the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein
Abraham, an assistant professor of microbiology, and his Harvard Medical School research team will use Challenge funds to predict the COVID-19 mutations that may be the likeliest of the existing variants to emerge.
“The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be turning a corner, and thankfully, most vaccines seem to working against variants that are circulating across the globe. We have to be proactive and do our best to anticipate what might be coming next in terms of mutations that might make drugs and vaccines ineffective,” said Abraham. “This award comes at a critical time for our lab and will allow us to carry out an ambitious, high-risk project in which we try to better predict how SARS-CoV-2 can mutate to escape antibodies either used in the clinic or elicited by vaccines. This means we would be better prepared with next-generation countermeasures if such changes in the virus happen.”