The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and partners, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, today announced an international program to select up to 50 outstanding early career scientists. The program’s aim is to help develop scientific talent worldwide.
The program represents a key piece in HHMI’s efforts to expand and enhance its support of international scientific research in the life sciences. “We are pleased to be joined in this initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundationexternal link, opens in a new tab, the Wellcome Trustexternal link, opens in a new tab, and the Gulbenkian Foundationexternal link, opens in a new tab,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “Each organization shares a commitment to building international scientific capacity by identifying and supporting outstanding early career scientists who have the potential to be scientific leaders.”
HHMI and its partners have committed a total of $37.4 million for the International Research Scholars Program and will award each scientist who is selected a total of $650,000 over five years. The competition is open to scientists who have trained in the U.S. or United Kingdom for at least one year. Additionally, eligible scientists must have run their own labs for less than seven years, and work in one of the eligible countries.
Countries that are not eligible for this competition include the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and United States), as well as countries identified by the U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as being subject to comprehensive country or territory-wide sanctions or where current OFAC regulations prohibit U.S. persons or entities from engaging in the funding arrangements contemplated by this grant program. For this program, such sanctioned countries or territories currently include Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and the Crimea region of Ukraine.
“We are expanding this program’s reach by broadening access to scientists in more countries,” said Erin O’Shea, HHMI vice president and chief scientific officer. O’Shea noted that the funding partnership recognizes that institutional support is critical in helping early career scientists establish independent research programs. Grants will be made only to institutions that can clearly support the activities of the grant recipient.
“Scientific innovation is the engine that underpins the discovery and development of new vaccines, drugs, diagnostics and other interventions needed to address global health inequities,” said Chris Wilson, senior advisor and former director of Discovery & Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “International research scientists bring unique perspectives and novel approaches that can accelerate this process. Through this collaborative endeavor, the Gates Foundation, HHMI, the Wellcome Trust, and the Gulbenkian Foundation aim to identify and support the research undertaken by such scientists and to bring them into a community that fosters the careers of these promising individuals.”
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “This program brings together funding partners who recognise that investing in research is critical to improving health. Our message is as relevant in lower and middle income countries as it is in high income countries, and this program is one way that we can support world-class scientists wanting to return to non-G7 countries to shape excellent, locally driven health research.”
“One of our four statutory goals is to support science and the dissemination of scientific knowledge. This is achieved in part by contributing to the development of young scientists of outstanding potential who hold the promise of improving mankind’s condition through discoveries in basic science, favoring health and improving the quality of life,” said José Neves Adelino, chairman of the Management Committee of the Gulbenkian Science Institute and Trustee of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
Growing up in a rural village in central Kenya, Thumbi Ndung’u routinely witnessed the damage caused by the HIV virus. Shortly after completing his PhD at Harvard in 2001, Ndung’u returned to Africa, where he was determined to make a difference in the fight against HIV. Now, an international grant from HHMI is helping him in his crusade.
Ndung’u believes that the key to combating HIV lies in understanding how the immune system keeps the disease in check. His HHMI award provided the resources to also explore how HIV breaks down the immune system and increases susceptibility to tuberculosis (TB).
“The TB work is in its infancy so I can’t claim a lot of accomplishment yet, but HHMI has given me an opportunity to further research that I think is very important, particularly for me as an African scientist.”
Ndung’u is also quick to point out the benefits of an HHMI award go well beyond the financial resources. “Being able to connect to different networks of HHMI investigators that I can call upon or discuss ideas with has been fantastic,” he says.
The association with HHMI has also led to a boon in funding for Ndung’u. “HHMI has a reputation for supporting outstanding medical research, so I think that my association with the institute has probably helped me to get additional funding,” he explains. After becoming an HHMI International Early Career Scientist (IECS) in 2012, Ndung’u was named Max Planck group leader at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) in Durban, South Africa. More recently, he received a generous consortium grant from the Wellcome Trust to support biomedical research and training in HIV and TB in sub-Saharan Africa.
When Isabel Roditi received an international grant from HHMI in 2005, she already had a successful lab that studied trypanosomes, the parasites that cause sleeping sickness. So Roditi used her award money to advance science in a different way.
Balancing work and family life can be difficult. This is especially true for postdoctoral researchers, who are often trying to establish academic independence while raising young children. To help her postdocs maintain their productivity and spend time with their families, Roditi used her HHMI award for a program she calls the 120 Percent Solution. The postdoc splits her project with a technician, and each works in the lab three days a week, overlapping one day. “Together they work 120 percent,” explains Roditi. “The scientist’s hands may not be in the lab all week, but the project keeps going.”
Roditi’s initiative has been so successful that the Swiss National Science Foundation created a similar program called the 120% Support Grant.
Roditi has also used part of her HHMI International Research Scholar award to follow up on some unusual observations in the lab. She recently discovered that trypanosomes can talk to each other in unexpected ways. “It’s obvious that parasites communicate with their hosts, but it’s a whole lot less obvious that they communicate with each other,” she explains. Her team studies two different ways trypanosomes communicate, both of which might be important for the parasites’ transmission and survival.
Although Nieng Yan had several grants when she started her lab at Tsinghua University in 2007, she barely had enough money to pay her eight lab members. “In China, there is a limit on the percentage of a grant that you can use to pay people — your graduate students, your postdocs, your technicians, your assistants — to a decent level,” she explains.
After struggling to balance her budget for several years, Yan’s scientific achievements and potential landed her an international grant from HHMI in 2012. “The amount of money provided by Hughes is relatively small compared to other programs, but it has the advantage that you can freely decide what to do with it,” says Yan.
In fact, HHMI’s science officers encouraged Yan to use her five-year International Early Career Award (IECS) to cover the cost of paying her lab team, explaining that the money could be used in any way that assisted her research.
Today, Yan has 15 people working in her lab helping to elucidate the structures of proteins that move molecules in and out of cells. The protein channels and transporters they study are mutated in a number of diseases — including diabetes and cancer — and understanding how they work could help in the development of drugs that block their ill effects. For example, the team recently solved the structure of GLUT1 – a glucose transporter that is often overexpressed in malignant tumor cells. Their data may provide clues for how to inhibit the transporter and perhaps even reveal a way to use it to deliver chemotherapeutic drugs.
In 2012, HHMI selected its first group of 28 international early career scientists. The researchers represented 12 countries and were chosen from 760 applicants. All the awardees trained in the United States as a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow and published important research prior to being selected.
In the new international competition, HHMI and its partners are seeking top early career researchers from a wide variety of biomedical research fields. Applicants must have started their first independent research position on or after April 1, 2009. Awardees will be invited to participate in research meetings with scientists supported by the funders. These meetings facilitate the exchange of ideas, stimulate new research, and provide an opportunity for collaborative endeavors within the international scientific community.
The competition opens on March 29, 2016, and closes on June 30, 2016. Interested scientists can submit their applications on HHMI’s website.
Distinguished scientists will evaluate the candidates' applications. Semi-finalists will be selected in late December 2016 and members of the review panel will interview them in London in February 2017. Awardees will be notified in April 2017.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. HHMI is headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland. For more information, please visit www.hhmi.org
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people – especially those with the fewest resources – have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. www.gatesfoundation.org/external link, opens in a new tab
The Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. We support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine. Our investment portfolio gives us the independence to support such transformative work as the sequencing and understanding of the human genome, research that established front-line drugs for malaria, and Wellcome Collection, our free venue for the incurably curious that explores medicine, life and art. www.wellcome.ac.ukexternal link, opens in a new tab
The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is an international foundation that bears the name of businessman, art collector and philanthropist of Armenian origin, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955). For almost 60 years, the Foundation has been carrying out extensive activities both in Portugal and abroad through the development of in-house projects -- or in partnership with other institutions -- and by awarding scholarships and grants. Headquartered in Lisbon, where Calouste Gulbenkian spent his last years, the Foundation is also home to a scientific investigation centre in Oeiras, and runs delegations in Paris and London -- cities where Calouste Gulbenkian lived. external link, opens in a new tabwww.gulbenkian.pt/inst/en/Homepageexternal link, opens in a new tab