Who Are the Allen Family Foundation's "Investigators?"

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s second round of "Allen Distinguished Investigator" awards shows an interest in up-and-coming scientists who are engaged in the front lines of basic biological research (read Paul Allen's IP profile).

Researchers at five U.S. institutions were granted support as Distinguished Investigators. Each of them will receive about $1.5 million to look at the behavior of cells or find new ways to understand the behavior of biological systems. The funding is intended to cover three years of study.

Jeff Gore, an assistant professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is among the latest recipients. Gore is interested in looking at evolution through the lens of game theory, the study of strategic decision-making.

Gore’s study will look at yeast and analyze how the living organism consumes two kinds of sugar. While some organisms might cheat and consume more sugar to gain an evolutionary advantage, others may exhibit cooperative behavior by sharing. The research will allow Gore to build mathematical models that he hopes will enhance understanding of microbes as well as populations of larger organisms — even humans.

"The basic question is how a population, which is collectively doing something, enforce that state of cooperation," Gore said. "It may be the case that cheater strategies, that is, individuals that don't fully contribute to the public good, they may have an advantage relative to those cooperator individuals and the cheater may then be able to spread throughout the population, in particular genetically."

Most of the foundation's other Allen Distinguished Investigators for 2013 had similar profiles — young researchers who are interested in expanding knowledge of basic biology. At Stanford, assistant professor Markus Covert will use his award to build a computer model of a cell. Suckjoon Jun, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Diego, will use a device he helped invent to study how cells decide when they are large enough to divide.

The relative youth of the group of researchers is no accident. One of the goals the Allen Family Foundation hopes to promote is lasting impact of its research (read senior program officer of science and tech, Kathy Richmond's IP profile). Since the award recipients are new to their careers, they are more likely to have fresh ideas that, if pursued with the single-minded focus that generous funding allows, will turn into a large body of research over the course of a career.

The Allen Family Foundation invites a select group of research institutions to nominate projects for the award, so you'll have to be on the faculty to be eligible. Assistant professors on the tenure track have a particular leg up — just don't forget to stick to the Arial or Helvetica font the foundation likes so much.