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Postdoc Leapfrog

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For most fledgling scientists, the long path to principal investigator-hood includes years of toiling as a postdoc. But the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that ten young biomedical scientists will skip that step in their careers, thanks to its new Early Independence Award programme.

“The Early Independence Award enables outstanding investigators to establish their independent research careers as soon as possible,” explained NIH Director Francis Collins in a statement announcing the first award recipients today. The statement pledged that the agency would commit approximately US$19.3 million to support the investigators’ work over five years.

An example of this year’s winners is James Fraser. The 29-year-old structural biologist earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010, and since January 2011 has been studying the intramolecular movements of proteins at the University of California, San Francisco.

“I was really encouraged by my graduate adviser to consider this early investigator option,” says Fraser. At Berkeley, “we had developed some exciting new ways of doing crystallography and analyzing the data and moving into an independent position earlier would really help those ideas have maximum impact.”


The NIH award will certainly help with that, says Fraser. But he’s discovered that it also means a whole new way of working. “I really have to structure and schedule my days down to the minute to be able to find time to do bench work and everything else” — such as working with collaborators and mentoring UCSF students. He plans to use the NIH’s $250,000 a year to hire another lab technician — he currently has only one — plus, he hopes, a postdoctoral researcher.

“With this money we are going to get to do the fun stuff that I want to do,” he says.

The other nine awardees are (research descriptions from the NIH):

— Nicole E. Basta, University of Washington School of Public Health, Seattle. Antibody persistence after conjugate meningococcal group A vaccination in Mali.

— John Calarco, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Investigating the role of alternative splicing regulatory networks in nervous system development and function.

— Randal Halfmann, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Contributions of protein aggregation to gene regulation and phenotypic diversity.

— Jeffrey M. Kidd, Stanford University School of Medicine, California. Characterizing the global architecture of genomic diversity.

— Christoph Lepper, Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC. Molecular mechanisms of muscle stem cells transitioning into quiescence.

— Carissa Perez Olsen, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. Defining the impact of lipid synthesis and turnover on aging in C. elegans.

— Rodney C. Samaco, Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital, Houston. The genetic and neuroanatomical origin of social behavior.

— Harris H. Wang, Wyss Institute/Harvard Medical School, Boston. Functional metagenomic reprogramming of the human microbiome through mobilome engineering.

— Daniela Witten, University of Washington School of Public Health. High-dimensional unsupervised learning with applications to genomics.

Image credit: Monica Obaga

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