Louis F. Reichardt, Simons Foundation

TITLE: Director, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative

FUNDING AREAS: autism research

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IP TAKE: Renowned scientific researcher and mountain climber Reichardt enjoys breaking new ground and being on the forefront of human capabilities. At the Simons Foundation, Reichardt brings his enthusiasm for exploration to discovering the biological underpinnings of autism spectrum disorders.

PROFILE: A mountain climber, neuroscientist, and inspiration for the 1991 movie K2, Louis Reichardt excels at pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and capability. With seemingly boundless energy and optimism, and an impressive background in brain research, this Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) leader guides the foundation in its mission of understanding and treating autism.

SFARI is a subset of the Simons Foundation. The nearly $2 billion philanthropic group funds mathematical and scientific research in a variety of areas, including theoretical physics and human biology. SFARI itself has an annual budget of roughly $60 million, about a third of which it awards to investigator-initiated research into the biological, cerebral, and genetic underpinnings of autism spectrum disorders.

Since it began requesting proposals in 2007, SFARI has funded dozens of autism researchers (all affiliated with research and/or academic institutions). Recent grants range in amount from several thousand to several million dollars, and recipient institutions include such scientific heavyweights as Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

What the SFARI grants have in common: They allow researchers to explore aspects of genetics and the human brain that contribute to disorders along the autism spectrum. This is really cutting-edge work. As prevalent as autism is, we still don't understand much about what causes autism or how to treat the disorder at its (unknown) source. Furthermore, there's so much potentially destructive junk science about autism floating around, it's reassuring to see such major investments in sound, rigorous, replicable scientific research.

Investigators interested in SFARI funding can apply for several different kinds of grants, depending on the researcher's particular needs and interests. On its website, SFARI provides this helpful chart on its various grants programs and also offers insights into how its grant-evaluation process works.

What does Reichardt bring to SFARI? His background indicates that, in addition to scientific expertise, he brings ambition and a thirst for new knowledge. Among Reichardt's past accomplishments: an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a PhD from Stanford, a Fulbright, various fellowships (including one as a researcher at Harvard Medical School), more than 20 years of research work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, research and professorshp at the University of California San Francisco, leadership positions at scientific journals, and, of course, the mountain climbing.

Reichardt has climbed both Mount Everest and K2, formerly serving as president of the American Alpine Club. He was the (loose) inspiration for the movie K2 about academic mountain climbers. In an interview with the Journal of Cell Biology, Reichardt explains the linkages he perceives between scientific exploration and climbing:

"Yes, a lot of my friends who are serious climbers are scientists, particularly engineers or physicists, more than biologists. I think it's because each involves solving problems. Climbing a route is in some ways like designing an experiment. And there's a lot of focused energy and intelligence in making decisions in climbing."