For her novel work analyzing cooperative systems and cheater mechanisms in yeast cells, Dr. Wenying Shou is the first Center investigator to win a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award. The three-year-old program, which encourages high-risk research and innovation for early stage investigators, granted 55 awards nationwide. Shou’s five-year award is worth up to $1.5 million.
Shou’s Basic Sciences Division lab studies social interactions between cells. To study the rules that govern cooperation, Shou set up an artificial system in which two sets of yeast cells are forced to cooperate because each lacks the ability to make an essential nutrient that it requires for life. The essential nutrient missing from each strain is available in the other strain, so the two organisms can coexist, even though neither can grow on its own. The population sizes and interactions of this system can be measured over time, enabling mathematical modeling.
Now Shou and her team are studying what happens when a third type of cell, a cheater, which requires a nutrient but gives nothing back, is introduced into the system. In addition, investigation into the role of spatial structure in stabilizing cooperation is under way.
The NIH award program has two goals: stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators. Many early stage researchers have potentially transformational research ideas, but not the preliminary data required to fare well in the traditional NIH peer review system. This award complements ongoing efforts by NIH to fund new investigators through R01 grants and other mechanisms.
Shou expressed relief for the easing of funding pressures. “This award will free me from the necessity of writing more grants and allow me to focus on doing research and building my group,” she said. “I am grateful to my division for being supportive of me even though I did not get any grants for the first two years.”
Shou was also selected in July as a 2009 W.M. Keck Foundation Distinguished Young Scholar in Medical Research, receiving a five-year award of up to $1 million.