Olsen wins $1.25 million NIH Early Independence Award

Basic Sciences Division's Carissa Perez Olsen is among first 10 recipients of new award designed to leapfrog outstanding junior investigators directly into faculty positions; two affiliate researchers also among recipients
Dr. Carissa Perez Olsen
Weintraub Scholar Dr. Carissa Perez Olsen will receive $1.25 million over five years for her research into the mechanisms of cancer, aging-related diseases and natural aging. Photo by Linsey Battan

Dr. Carissa Perez Olsen, a Weintraub Scholar in the Hutchinson Center's Basic Sciences Division, is the recipient of the National Institutes of Health Director's Early Independence Award. She is among the first group of 10 junior U.S. investigators to receive the honor—designed to carry creative, confident young scientists directly into full-fledged research careers. Olsen will receive $1.25 million over five years for her research into the mechanisms of cancer, aging-related diseases and natural aging.

"This award is a tribute to Carissa's success and recognizes her enormous potential as an independent researcher," said Dr. Jonathan Cooper, director of the Center's Basic Sciences Division. "The grant will jump-start her career and allow her to go straight from graduate student to faculty and bypass the usual postdoctoral fellowship stage. Her laboratory will be a valuable addition to our group of researchers who explore physiology, metabolism and aging."

Using C. elegans—roundworms—Olsen's research focuses on the membranes that are essential for all cellular life. Membranes are made of phospholipids, cholesterol and membrane proteins that together form a dynamic barrier that is vital to cellular survival.

"The properties of a membrane can be dramatically affected by altering the composition of these components," Olsen said. "Therefore, it is important to understand how proper composition of phospholipids is maintained in cellular membranes, because even small changes can impact the ability of the membrane to function properly."

Altered membrane composition has been observed in many disease states, including cancer, aging-related diseases and natural aging.
Olsen received her doctoral degree in June from the joint Hutchinson Center/University of Washington Molecular and Cellular Biology Program; she received her undergraduate degree at Cornell University.

Affiliate researchers Basta and Witten also among recipients

Two University of Washington-based researchers who have affiliations at the Hutchinson Center were also among the Early Independence Award winners.

Nicole Basta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health and a research associate in the Hutchinson Center's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division. She aims to understand the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases, to assess the direct and indirect effects of vaccination, and to determine optimal strategies for disease prevention and control.

Dr. Daniela Witten is an assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics in the UW School of Public Health and an affiliate investigator in the Hutchinson Center's Public Health Sciences Division.  Her research involves the development of statistical tools for the analysis of large-scale biological data sets, such as gene expression, DNA copy number, and DNA sequencing data.

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