Behind a Major Gift for Basic Science at Johns Hopkins

If you’re looking for more evidence that basic science research is gaining popularity, you might want to take a peek at the big gift Johns Hopkins Medical received last week. Specifically, you might want to check out the $15 million alumnus Huntington “Skip” Sheldon contributed to its Institute for Basic Biomedical Science as part of the university’s “Rising to the Challenge” campaign.

The gift is going toward an endowed professorship and to enhance the school's overall recruitment of faculty in the basic sciences. And a big chunk is going to be used to build a cryomicroscopy facility—the kind of place where scientists can peep at biological molecular structures. Like viruses, for example.

For some top research universities around the country, basic science is where it’s at, and Johns Hopkins, at the forefront of basic science research, knows this all too well. Back in the day, according to IBBS director Stephen Desiderio, MD, Ph.D, studying medicine was about genuine scholarship, not just about learning medical procedures and precedents.

One could argue that it’s only through scholarship that true breakthroughs are achieved—without a rigorous, ground-up understanding of medical science and a real spark of curiosity about even the most basic unanswered questions, researchers are limited to minor feats of engineering, like making cancer drugs less poisonous, for example. Breakthroughs like curing cancer, AIDS, Ebola—those require a deeper, broader understanding of biology and science.

Sheldon, for his part, is exactly the kind of physician-scientist that IBBS seeks to encourage. He studied at Johns Hopkins, of course, completing both his education and residency there, before going on to teach pathology at McGill University. But beyond all that, he’s actually one of the “pioneers” in the field of electron microscopy, which helps explain why he has some spare cash on hand and why some of the money he gave will be used to drive that field even further along, into cryomicroscopy.

"Basic biomedical research at Johns Hopkins is second to none, and we are immensely grateful to Dr. Sheldon for helping us go even further," says Desiderio. "Philanthropic gifts like his are essential for funding the kind of high-risk, high-reward research that leads to innovation and discovery but rarely gets supported by federal granting agencies."