The sixth year of an assistant professor’s career at Rockefeller is a promising time. By then, investigators have been able to get their labs up and running, to formulate core questions, to develop methods to examine them, and to demonstrate their potential to make an impact. It is also when they are considered for promotion to associate professor. But as lab heads approach the six-year mark, they are also likely to find themselves in a funding crunch.
A $7 million gift from the Jensam Foundation is making possible a new Rockefeller program that supports tenure-track scientists during this critical period. Known as the Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Early-Career Innovation Award, the program is designed not only to provide an influx of funding when other grant money is often in short supply, but also to encourage lab heads to take on bold projects and develop novel approaches to their research.
All newly promoted associate professors are eligible for the award, which consists of a research grant of $250,000.
“At this point in their careers, their startup funds might be depleted, and they may no longer qualify for the ‘young investigator’ grants that originally helped their labs launch ambitious initiatives,” says Michael W. Young, vice president for academic affairs. “This unique award will support our early-career scientists as they move forward on the path to tenure, allowing them to pursue creative, novel, or high-risk work that might not easily attract funding from conventional sources.”
To be considered for the award, newly promoted associate professors must submit short concept papers outlining how the funds would allow them to enhance and accelerate their research. A five-person committee—comprised of standing members President Richard P. Lifton, Dr. Young, and Cori Bargmann, as well as two invited faculty members—reviews the papers and meets with the candidates. If the committee endorses a proposal, Dr. Lifton confers the award and releases the funds.
Joelle Kayden, who is president of the Jensam Foundation, created the award in memory of her late parents, Drs. Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden. Dr. Reem was an internist and professor of pharmacology at NYU Langone Medical Center, where Dr. Kayden was a cardiologist and professor of medicine. Both physician-scientists served on The Rockefeller University Council and took an active interest in the university’s investigators, including Dr. Bargmann, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor and head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior, with whom they were friends. In addition, in 2012, Ms. Kayden’s father endowed the Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Assistant Professorship, which is held by Vanessa Ruta, head of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Behavior.
“My family and I couldn’t be more excited to help stimulate the research of Rockefeller’s young faculty,” says Ms. Kayden, who is also the founder and managing member of the venture capital firm Accolade Partners, based in Washington, D.C. “And I’m sure my parents would be equally thrilled.”
Six Rockefeller faculty members promoted within the past two years have already received the award: Winrich Freiwald, Gaby Maimon, Luciano Marraffini, Daniel Mucida, Agata Smogorzewska, and Sohail Tavazoie. The Jensam Foundation made the funding available so the award could be given retroactively to include Drs. Smogorzewska and Tavazoie, who were promoted in 2015.
The aim of Dr. Freiwald’s Laboratory of Neural Systems is to understand how the brain processes faces. With the Reem–Kayden Award, the lab has set up specialized microscopes as part of a new experimental approach that will allow the imaging of large-scale neural populations in order to uncover the mechanisms of social brain function. Dr. Freiwald is particularly interested in what information is used to recognize a face, and how facial signals then activate our memories of people we know and generate emotional reactions, which are expressed in the face.
With the Reem–Kayden Award, Dr. Maimon, who studies sophisticated brain functions in fruit flies, has begun exploring how brains create an internal sense of space. His Laboratory of Integrative Brain Function will search in the Drosophila brain for a neural mechanism for path integration—the process by which animals tally their movements, even in complete darkness, so as to update an internal sense of where they are located in two-dimensional space. By studying how the insects solve this well-defined task, Dr. Maimon aims to shed light on how brains perform other fundamental calculations.
Dr. Marraffini, head of the Laboratory of Bacteriology, studies CRISPR-Cas systems, which enable bacteria and other microbes to acquire immunity against viruses by capturing snippets of their DNA. With support from the Reem–Kayden Award, he studies the molecular mechanisms of immunization and immunity of recently identified CRISPR-Cas systems in non-model organisms. His aim is to uncover how the vast genetic repertoire of these systems contributes to the development of effective immune responses in bacteria and archaea, and explore the unique biology of these microorganisms.
Dr. Mucida and his colleagues in the Laboratory of Mucosal Immunology study the specialized immune system of the intestine. With support from the Reem–Kayden Award, he examines the communication between neurons and immune cells within the gut, interactions that may play a key role in repair and in modulating the extent of neuronal damage during inflammation caused by infections. Using a combination of novel imaging and genetic tools, Dr. Mucida aims to further our understanding of inflammatory processes in the intestine and in other tissues.
Work in Dr. Smogorzewska’s Laboratory of Genome Maintenance is focused on how the human genome of over three billion base pairs is maintained during DNA replication. Each replication cycle creates a challenge caused by difficult to replicate DNA, the presence of damaged template, or collisions with transcription machinery. The Reem–Kayden Award has helped bolster Dr. Smogorzewska’s efforts to identify and study proteins that are degraded in response to these challenges during replication.
Over the last several years, Dr. Tavazoie, who studies the processes of cancer metastasis, has revealed that deregulated expression of specific tissue-selective small RNAs allows rare cancer cells to achieve extreme shifts in gene expression states, enabling metastasis formation. With the Reem–Kayden Award, he studies the basic mechanisms by which a poorly understood class of small noncoding RNAs, called tRNA-derived fragments, mediate their biological effects in both normal and malignant cells. Dr. Tavazoie is Leon Hess Associate Professor and head of the Elizabeth and Vincent Meyer Laboratory of Systems Cancer Biology.
“The university is enormously grateful for this generous gift,” says Marnie Imhoff, senior vice president for development. “This will make it possible for Rockefeller’s most energetic and ambitious scientists to conduct research.”