The National Institutes of Health (NIH) just announced some of its most coveted research investigator awards. I am thrilled to share that we have four Hertz Fellows who have been named winners of the NIH Director’s Awards, each of which is designed to support high-risk,high-reward research programs. This year’s audacious proposals are precisely the kind of innovative work that our “freedom to innovate” nurtures and supports!
Hertz Fellows have won 17 Director’s Awards since 2007. Dr. Ed Boyden has won the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award for the third time in the award’s nine-year history, bringing his total NIH Director’s awards to five – the most of any recipient. Dr. Kevin Esvelt has been recognized with the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. And both Dr. Hilary Finucane and Dr. Kyle Loh have been honored with the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.
Ed Boyden is the most-awarded investigator in the history of the Director’s Awards. He previously won the Award for Transformative Research in 2012 and 2013, the New Innovator Award in 2007 and the Pioneer Award in 2013. His 2017 project is focused on developing a protocol to safely render living brains transparent, enabling real-time imaging of their activity, leading to insights into the causes of brain disorders and their remedies. Ed is a professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute. He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and repairing complex biological systems such as the brain, and applies them systematically to reveal ground truth principles of biological function as well as to repair these systems. These technologies include expansion microscopy, which enables complex biological systems to be imaged with nanoscale precision, and optogenetic tools, which enable the activation and silencing of neural activity with light. He co-directs the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, which aims to develop new tools to accelerate neuroscience progress.
Kevin Esvelt’s project will develop “daisy drive” systems capable of precisely and efficiently altering local populations of disease agents or vectors to both reduce the infection and spread of diseases (such as Lyme disease, malaria and Zika) while enabling individual communities to make their own public health decisions. Kevin is an assistant professor of the MIT Media Lab, where he leads the Sculpting Evolution Group in exploring evolutionary and ecological engineering. He helped pioneer the development of CRISPR genome engineering. And he was the first to identify the potential for CRISPR-based “gene drive” systems to alter wild populations of organisms, electing to call for open discussion and raise awareness of safeguards before demonstrating the technology in the lab. At MIT, his laboratory is developing safer “daisy drives” that only spread locally, ways of restoring populations to their original genetics, and community-guided genomic methods of preventing tick-borne disease. He seeks to use gene drive as a catalyst to reform the scientific ecosystem.
Hilary Finucane’s project will focus on developing methods to use large-scale datasets (such as GTex, the Roadmap Epigenomics Consortium and the ENCODE project) to identify disease-relevant cell types and tissues, a necessary first step for understanding molecular mechanisms of disease. She is a Broad Fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Hilary’s research group develops and applies new computational and statistical methods for analyzing large-scale biological datasets, with a focus on combining human genetic data with functional genomics data to learn about the causes of common diseases. She obtained her PhD in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year.
Kyle Loh’s project seeks to greatly expand the number of patients who can receive foreign organ transplants, with a long-term goal of eventually resetting a patient’s immune system to receive new artificial tissues derived from embryonic stem cells. He is the Siebel Investigator at the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Medicine. His laboratory aims to reconstitute the development of various human cell-types in a dish from stem cells. This approach will define the minimal signals sufficient to generate cell-types from scratch, allowing the generation of pure populations of human tissue progenitors and creating a platform for stem cell-driven regenerative medicine. He received his Hertz Fellowship at age 17, having already received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers and led a research project at the Genome Institute of Singapore.
This recognition brings great honor to the entire Hertz Community, and the financial award each Fellow receives will serve to fuel their ambitious, world-changing work. We are delighted to congratulate these outstanding Fellows and look forward to seeing the fruits of their research labor.