SEATTLE — Sept. 22, 2016 — Drs. Jesse Bloom and Frederick “Erick” Matsen, evolutionary researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, were named Faculty Scholars today by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Simons Foundation. This honor comes with five years of unrestricted philanthropic support for these two scientists, both of whom focus on developing methods for understanding evolution, especially the evolution of pathogens and immune resistance.
Faculty Scholars are “early-career scientists who have great potential to make unique contributions to their field,” the sponsoring organizations said in a statement. Bloom and Matsen were among 84 Faculty Scholars from 43 institutions who were chosen this year, out of more than 1,400 applicants, on the basis of their work to date and their future research plans. The awards range from $600,000 to $1.8 million each.
Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, said that it is an exceptional honor for Fred Hutch to have two of its investigators named to this elite group of investigators in a nationwide competition. Dr. Matsen and Dr. Bloom are eminently deserving of this award in a field of research that has extraordinary potential benefit for humanity.
“The immune system, critical to our very survival, holds great promise as we develop therapies to defeat wide-ranging diseases, but viruses, bacteria, and even cancer cells are not constant static targets. Each step in our understanding of the evolutionary process brings us closer to better treatments and cures,” said Gilliland, who himself was an HHMI investigator from 1996 to 2009.
The Faculty Scholars program is a collaboration between the HHMI, the Simons Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The organizations created the program in response to the increasingly tough environment for early-career investigators in the U.S.
Both Bloom and Matsen are interested in mining DNA-sequence information to understand evolution.
“Jesse in particular combines computation with experiments done at the bench,” said Fred Hutch biostatistician Dr. Ross Prentice, director emeritus of the Public Health Sciences Division, of which Bloom and Matsen are associate members. “He's testing how viruses can adapt to avoid being attacked by the immune system without compromising their ability to reproduce. There are fascinating implications for protein structure and stability, as well as how the immune system recognizes invaders.”
The two scientists are both grateful for the open-ended support provided by this award, they said, which frees them to undertake the scientific projects that they are most passionate about.
“I can use [this award] to pursue what I think are the most interesting directions for the lab. I’m really excited that it will give us the flexibility to pursue new ideas that are really promising,” said Bloom, who is also an associate member of the Basic Sciences Division at Fred Hutch.
This honor arrives at “one of the more challenging times” in a scientist’s career, said Bloom, when institutional start-up funding for new faculty runs out and the researcher must find sufficient outside grant support to keep their work humming ― an often-tough challenge for a young scientist with a short track record and a growing lab to support.
In addition to supporting his lab’s principal scientific projects, Matsen said, this award will also allow him to pursue initiatives “that I think are good for science, rather than just good for our science,” he said.
He is particularly interested in finding better ways to promote discussion and collaboration among scientists, especially across the disciplines of biology and math, he said. Two initiatives in this area he’s eager to advance as a Faculty Scholar are an online phylogenetics seminar forum and a discussion site for researchers interested in analyzing the genetics of immune response.
“Sometimes there are things that are important for a scientific field that aren’t glamorous science,” he said.
The two researchers ― who often work together to tackle problems or share insights that might advance each other’s work ― said they are especially pleased to both be named Faculty Scholars at the same time.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to be getting this award alongside Jesse,” Matsen said. “Jesse is someone I greatly respect and enjoy talking to immensely.”