Six Harvard Faculty Receive Prestigious Funding

SAHAR ASHRAFZADEH

In a very practical way, this frees up a lot of time and energy that we would devote to trying to get grants. Dr. Hopi Hoekstra

Sahar Ashrafzadeh, Article ImageThis year, over one thousand scientists from across the country competed to become Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) research investigators. Judges selected scientists who demonstrated the greatest levels of promise and potential in their fields of research. The appointment provides each of its investigators with a full salary, a research budget, and the freedom to pursue groundbreaking biomedical research over the next five years. Of the twenty-seven appointed for the position this year, six are Harvard faculty members.

Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology, is one of the recipients. She is working to identify how variations in genes produce variations in behavior. Her lab uses deer mice, a species that has a wealth of genetic and phenotypic diversity.  Hoekstra’s research connects the ecological context of behavioral variations with the underlying genetic, developmental, and neurobiological processes.

“Our hope is to make headway into understanding the mechanisms driving behavioral evolution,” Hoekstra says. The same genes involved in the behavioral variation of deer mice populations contribute to changes in the behaviors of other species as well, including humans.

Dr. Adam Cohen, professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics, has also been appointed an HHMI investigator for his research, which involves reversing the function of a protein found in a special class of microorganisms in the Dead Sea to convert electrical current into light. By genetically modifying the organisms’ neurons to produce this protein, Cohen and his team can visualize their neural activity, noting which areas of the nervous system light up as they process a certain stimulus. This novel imaging approach will help elucidate similarities and differences in the electrical activity of neurons in healthy individuals, compared to those of individuals with neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases.

By providing flexible, long-term funding to its investigators, HHMI fosters creativity and constructive risk-taking, two qualities key to the work of Hoekstra and Cohen. “In a very practical way, this frees up a lot of time and energy that we would devote to trying to get grants,” Hoekstra says.  “We feel fewer limits to the things we could do, the questions we could ask, and the approaches we could take.”

Cohen adds, “We’re now trying some very ambitious projects. The support of HHMI has allowed me to think in a longer-term way about projects that might take a few years to have payoff.” Harvard Medical School faculty members Dr. Vamsi Mootha, Dr. David Reich, Dr. Johannes Walter, and Dr. Rachel Wilson have also been appointed as HHMI investigators. Overall, Harvard faculty comprise the greatest number of award recipients from a single institution this year. These new appointments promise to yield a wealth of new research discoveries in the years to come.

Sahar Ashrafzadeh is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at sashrafzadeh@college.harvard.edu.