Cracking the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation

The G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Foundation is one of those rare, well-endowed, but incredibly transparent foundations. Its philanthropic pockets are hundreds of millions dollars deep ($200-odd million, to be more exact), yet it has a staff of only three. It gives around $2 million annually to support brain research, and it favors cutting-edge, en vogue projects. Prions. Plasticity. Y’know, “sexy” brain stuff. Its doors are never closed to a random, unsolicited LOI or query. But how do you go about turning those three heads and attracting attention for your own special query? Well, read on.

One of the foundation's most notorious funded projects offers insight into its grant preferences: Carla Shatz, the David Starr Jordan Director of Stanford Bio-X, has been puzzling out the rhyme and reason of how the brain trims its own neural pathways as it develops, through a sort of self-pruning behavior that makes room for new connections and weeds out what isn’t being used. It’s neural plasticity at its finest, exactly the kind of thing Mathers loves. And, even better, it’s taking place at a giant, prestigious research school. Another Mathers favorite.

Shatz’s project has been receiving funding from Mathers for several years—she received $275,000 in 2011, and again in 2012, two rather large grants for Mathers, which usually gives amounts between $100,000 and $250,000. Just last month, Mathers’ support of Shatz’s initiative paid off in a big way when the project uncovered a singular protein, MHC Class I D, that plays a critical role in the brain’s process of removing excess connections. The protein is especially important when it comes to the development of vision. "Vision is a challenging problem because you have two eyes and only one view of the world," said Shatz, who is the Sapp Family Provostial Professor and professor of biology and of neurobiology. "There's a very beautiful set of wiring steps that makes sure the eyes are pointed at the same place and the two images get aligned."

Shatz’s work is edgy, but not over-the-edge, which may, in the end, be the best clue to potential grantees for how to catch the foundation’s eye. You need to be working from known science, but looking at it in a fresh light, taking an oft-acknowledged question such as brain plasticity, and puzzling out new answers. Big research school affiliation, and geography seem important—most of Mathers’ grants go to schools in California, Texas, and New York. Try sending a query to admin@mathersfoundation.org or calling at 914-242-0465; if the foundation likes what it sees, it will invite you to proceed.