The Beckman Young Investigator award is high up there among the sweetest gigs a researcher can land, backing scientists who are just getting started. The program tends to reward those improving the tools of their trades, as demonstrated by the latest round of winners.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is a California-based funder carrying on the legacy of the late inventor of the acidity meter and other devices. Beckman was a believer in taking risks and the potential of young researchers, so the foundation’s funding skews toward the young and less-experienced.
We're seeing a lot of this lately: grant programs that are betting on a new generation of investigators with an eye toward nurturing out-of-the-box thinking and ensuring a pipeline of new talent. Is that a right hunch? And is it fair to older researchers who bring more experience and insights to their work? These are good questions, and ones we'll take up in another post.
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For now, let's take a closer look at Beckman. Its three main programs support undergraduate research, scientists just getting out of grad school, and the Young Investigators program, which gives substantial support to faculty members early in their careers in chemistry and life sciences. Just as Beckman is known for advancing the tools used in chemical research, the funder also has an affinity for researchers advancing new methods, instruments and materials to accelerate their fields.
And like similar awards that focus on individual researchers, including those from Kavli and HHMI, the BYI program provides the kind of funding that means real financial security. Awards normally offer $750,000 over four years.
The 2015 awards went to eight researchers working in fields including neuroscience, chemistry, synthetic biology, and cellular biology. Here are a few highlights:
- Peter Nemes is an assistant professor of chemistry at George Washington University working on tools to observe molecular processes down to what’s happening in a single neuron. He’s improving the techniques used to analyze proteins in cells, scaling way down from measuring activity in thousands of neurons to just a single one. This could allow other researchers to pinpoint behavior in specific brain cells that may be contributing to disease like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia.
- Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy is another researcher working in brain science at Northwestern. She’s working on new methods for understanding neuromodulation, slow-moving signals in the brain that we know relatively little about, but which control many basic brain functions. Her work combines biology, engineering and computing to gain a better understanding of the process.
- Alex Shalek is an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT who uses nanotechnology to develop tools for understanding how cells work collectively. His team watches how individual cells interact with each other in both healthy states and diseased states.
All of these researchers not only have youth on their side, but they also are doing work that, if it bears fruit, could cascade out to benefit other researchers. We see a lot of this approach to funding in private philanthropy, Moore in particular comes to mind. More than funding a study, the winners could unlock whole new directions of research.