University creates young faculty awards

September 17, 2015

By MARCIA ZIMMERMAN

University President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Robert C. Lieberman recently announced the launch of the Catalyst and Discovery Award programs.

Choosing from more than 175 submissions, the Catalyst Awards will contribute up to $75,000 each to 37 faculty members who are in the early stages of their careers. The Discovery Awards aim to incite research collaboration between faculty from various schools across the university by creating 23 cross-divisional research teams.

These efforts are part of a $15 million investment in faculty-led research over the next three years. Not only is it difficult to secure external or start-up funding in the inception of a career, but federal research funding from traditional government sources, such as the National Institutes of Health, are declining as well.

Tinglong Dai, one of the Discovery recipients and an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, emphasized the ingenuity of Hopkins and the importance of awards like this.

“This award clearly demonstrates the University leadership’s vision and audacity rarely found in other institutions,” Dai said. “In announcing the award, Vice Provost Denis Wirtz told me to ‘go change the world.’”

Dai’s research examines the incentives of interventional cardiologists, who use non-surgical procedures to treat heart disease.

“Talk to any cardiologist, and you would soon realize this is [a vital] but rarely studied topic. Projects like this are often not funded because they are regarded as too risky,” he said.

Xin Chen, another Catalyst Award recipient and an associate professor in the Department of Biology, is grateful for the opportunities the funding will provide.

“My lab is working on a new project to understand how cells with identical genomes turn on distinct signature genes to become different in multicellular organisms,” Chen said. “This new direction is very exciting as well as risky. The Catalyst Award I received will allow us to work on it with more freedom.”

Mario Macis, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, is also appreciative of the funding.

“[I research] attitudes toward morally controversial transactions [at] the intersection of bioethics and economics. It is in large part new territory... It feels great to be part of a University that encourages frontier research by junior faculty,” Macis said.

A large amount of funding from universities traditionally goes to more tenured professors, while these awards have largely been given to assistant professors. Another Catalyst Award recipient, Mark Wu, an associate professor of neurology, recently had a breakthrough in his research.

“[I discovered] a novel gene in fruit flies that regulates the circadian timing of sleep, and have found that in mammals, such as mice and humans, this gene is conserved and expressed in the circadian clock circuit,” Wu said.

“I will use this award to start studying this gene in mice, with the ultimate goal of understanding how the timing of sleep is regulated in humans.”

These awards provide additional opportunities to young scientists who are still enrolled in either undergraduate or graduate schools.

Fengquan Zhou, a Catalyst Award recipient and an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, is researching central nervous system neural regeneration via the epigenetic reprogramming of mature CNS neurons.

“[The Catalyst Award] gives young scientists in the lab a precious opportunity to explore new areas of research, which will definitely have a positive impact on their future career development,” Zhou said.

Some researchers require expensive equipment and supplies to reach their goals. Catalyst recipient Andrew Ewald in the Departments of Cell Biology, Oncology and Biomedical Engineering within the School of Medicine & Whiting School of Engineering says that such funding is critical for him to answer fundamental questions in mammalian epithelial biology.

According to Biology-Online, epithelium is one of the fundamental types of animal tissues primarily involved in protecting the underlying structures, secretion, regulation and absorption.

Other researchers, such as Gabsang Lee, need funding to continue studying their topics more in-depth. Lee’s lab has been working on human stem cells.

“Last year, we had a piece of evidence about a new cell type that has not been identified before. We call it adipomyocyte, a common progenitor that can give rise to both skeletal muscle cells and brown fat tissues,” Lee said. “This [Catalyst Award] is to support our studies to isolate human adipomyocytes and characterize them. Potentially it can be key information for understanding muscle related diseases and metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and obesity.”

These awards are not solely for scientists. Matthias Matthijs, a Catalyst Award recipient from within the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, will spend his spring semester in Europe, conducting research on the deep causes of Europe’s current democratic unease. For his next book on democratic dysfunction in the United States, France and the United Kingdom, he will conduct interviews in both Paris and London.

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