Five Yale School of Medicine faculty members have been named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Faculty Scholars, a distinction that recognizes recipients for their potential to make significant contributions to their scientific fields.
A joint initiative by three philanthropy organizations — the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Simons Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the Faculty Scholars program was introduced in March 2015 to support early-career scientists facing increasing competition in their search for research funding opportunities. Professors Daniel Colón-Ramos, Antonio Giraldez, Andrew Goodman, Valentina Greco and Carla Rothlin were among 84 scientists across the country to receive the honor, which was announced on Sept. 22.
“What we’re trying to do is provide an opportunity and resources for people to act on their most creative ideas, in a climate where things have become very constricted,” Janet Shaw, the HHMI senior scientific officer responsible for overseeing the Faculty Scholars program, said.
As Faculty Scholars, the Yale professors will receive financial support for their research projects over the next five years, as well as have access to mentoring and career development resources from the HHMI community, according to the announcement.
Greco, a genetics professor whose research focuses on tissue regeneration, said that the Faculty Scholars program is more than just a funding opportunity, adding that it also carries “a huge weight with respect to recognition.”
Colón-Ramos said that the most common sources of funding for biomedical scientists are federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. While these organizations provide critical financial support, all of the professors agreed that the rigid structure and fierce competition associated with applying for federal grants limits creativity. In the Faculty Scholars announcement, HHMI also referred to the “dramatic decline” in the success rate for scientists applying for NIH grants as another obstacle for early-career scientists.
The Faculty Scholars program, which is funded entirely by private organizations, is unique in that it does not confine awardees to extremely detailed or conservative research plans, according to Shaw. Instead, Faculty Scholars are chosen based on not only their credentials, but also their visions and the potential they have to impact their fields. As a result, they are encouraged to use their grant money to pursue innovative ideas that may also be associated with higher risk.
“It’s an opportunity to try to think outside the box and develop new, risky strategies that are otherwise hard to fund through the traditional channels,” Giraldez, a genetics professor whose lab researches embryo fertilization and gene regulation, said. “It really gives you freedom to pursue the most exciting avenues.”
Although the Faculty Scholars program provides researchers with more freedom, Giraldez said the grant alone cannot solve the larger problem of inadequate funding, a concern which may deter younger generations from following their passions. Rothlin, who researches immune system regulation, said that even at prestigious institutions like Yale, basic scientists still encounter many challenges with obtaining funding to maintain their labs. However, all five professors praised Yale’s Office of Sponsored Projects for providing immense support in all funding ventures.
According to Greco, faculty at the School of Medicine face even more pressure to secure steady sources of funding, because a large part of their salary is determined by self-sourced grant funding. As a result, Greco said, awards like the Faculty Scholars grant are helpful, but they are only a short-term way to alleviate problems in a model that is ultimately unsustainable
Colón-Ramos, whose lab studies the brain’s neuronal connections, echoed these sentiment, but he also said that current funding structure is “incompatible with a healthy system of research and discovery.” Without a stable, predictable allocation of funding, scientists have to devote a significant amount of time to searching and applying for grants rather than pursuing innovative research, he added.
Goodman, whose work involves characterizing bacteria in the human gut, agreed that acquiring funding can be challenging, but he said it ultimately should not discourage prospective scientists and academics because there are many avenues to win support for research.
“Certainly, securing funding is competitive and a big part of running a lab is getting that support, but grant writing also helps focus your ideas and get new ideas, and there are benefits to that,” Goodman said. “I think both the NIH and private foundations are recognizing the challenge of starting a lab in this environment and are making efforts to provide more opportunities.”
This year’s 84 Faculty Scholars were selected from a pool of over 1,400 applicants from more than 220 eligible institutions.
This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Oct. 7.