A Sweet Gig, for Sure: Who Made the Cut as New HHMI Investigators?

With nearly $19 billion in assets, HHMI’s influence on academic research can’t be overstated. So when the funder puts 26 more scientists on the payroll, it’s worth a closer look at the new class. 

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the country’s largest private supporter of academic biomedical research, giving more than $706 million in 2014 to U.S. research. But part of the reason the funder makes such waves in the scientific community is its tendency to give top notch researchers a full ride—salary, benefits, research budget, lab space, for five years with potential for renewal. It might be the sweetest gig you can land in research, with ongoing funds supporting researchers wherever their work takes them, as opposed to chunks of money from project to project.  

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While there are about 330 HHMI Investigators to date, the institute doesn’t appoint new ones all that often. The previous round of winners made the cut in early 2013. So it’s always interesting to see who gets the nod, as 26 new scientists just did. 

The 2015 round started with 894 eligible applicants (down a bit from 1,155 last round), who were narrowed down to 59 semifinalists then evaluated as part of a symposium at HHMI’s research campus. The winners are from all over the country, 19 universities in all, and subjects range from the neuroscience of itching to cancer research. All told, HHMI will sink $153 million into these folks. 

Here’s more about just a few of the new HHMI Investigators, and the cutting-edge work they’re doing: 

 

  • Joanna K. Wysocka, of Stanford University studies how gene expression during development makes human faces unique from other animals. In particular, her research is about how variations in gene expression translate into diversity in human faces, both in association with disease and the normal range of development. She recently gained some attention for her team’s work related to how fragments of ancient viruses play a role in human development.
  • Loren M. Frank of University of California, San Francisco is a leading neuroscientist working on one of the most impressive functions of the brain—storing past events and then using them to guide future decisions. His team has been mapping brain activity in rats as they “replay” memories that allow them to navigate their way through a maze. In particular, he looks at the role of the hippocampus in the storage and access of memory.
  • Sue Biggins, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is a geneticist and biologist who has been researching how cells divide, an important mechanism in both healthy cell function and in the formation of cancers and other disorders. Biggins studies kinetochores, machinery inside cells that allow them to separate and divvy up the right number of chromosomes to each new cell. When this process fails, it can lead to cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects. Biggins is on a roll lately, as she just won the Genetics Society of America’s Novitski Prize. 
  • John D. MacMicking of Yale studies microbial pathogenesis who is leading new discoveries that have found individual cells have their own defense strategies from infection. We know all about the body’s elaborate immune system protecting against viruses and bacteria, but MacMicking’s work has shown that even individual cells have their own defense mechanisms against pathogens. This has led to a broader understanding of how our bodies defend themselves from invaders.

 

While HHMI investigators work in very active fields—genomics, brain mapping, cancer research—one thing that sets them apart is a certain level of creativity and imagination in their work. The structure of the program is such that it encourages and allows for researchers to veer off in creative directions, so the researchers chosen tend to be those who are going against the grain or taking novel approaches in their respective fields.

"Scientific discovery requires original thinking and creativity," said HHMI president Robert Tjian. "Every scientist selected has demonstrated these qualities. One of the most important things we can do at HHMI is to continue to support and encourage the best discovery research. We don't know this for certain, but the ideas that emerge from these labs might one day change the world, and it's our privilege to help make that happen." 

Learn more about the application process, and the full list of new investigators here. And keep an eye on them, some of these folks tend to win Nobel Prizes.