Four Hertz Fellows Granted Coveted National Institute of Health Director’s High-Risk Research Awards

October 27, 2017
Hertz Staff
Livermore, Calif

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to empowering America’s most brilliant scientific minds, is proud to announce that four Hertz Fellows have been honored with the National Institute of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Awards for 2017. Dr. Edward Boyden is a three-time winner of the NOH Director’s Transformative Research Award, making him the only investigator to win three times – and the most awarded investigator in the history of the Director’s Awards, with five awards across the four programs. Dr. Kevin Esvelt has been recognized with the NIH Director’s New Innovators Award. And both Dr. Hilary Finucane and Dr. Kyle Loh have been honored with the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. This brings the total number of Director’s Awards won by Hertz Fellows to 17 over the last decade.

“The fact that four Hertz Fellows were honored with this year’s NIH Director’s high-risk, high-impact research awards demonstrates again that our Fellowship’s focus on the “freedom to innovate” delivers, by truly nurturing and supporting pioneering work,” said Robbee Baker Kosak, president, the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. “We are so proud of Ed, achieving his record-making fifth NIH award; Kevin, with his focus on ethical science; and Hilary and Kyle, brand new investigators whose research already promises so much. These awards bring honor to the entire Hertz Community and will help further both these Fellows’ research and overall scientific progress.”

The NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, established in 2009, promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who proposed research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms. Boyden previously won the award in 2012 and 2013. His 2017 project is focused on developing a protocol to safely render living brains transparent, enabling real-time imaging of their activity and leading to insights into the causes of brain disorders and their remedies and pointing to new clinical targets.

Boyden is a professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences and 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 images 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. Boyden earned his PhD in neurosciences from Stanford University, his master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his undergraduate degrees in both physics and electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also won the Director’s New Innovator Awards in 2007 and the Pioneer Award in 2013.

The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree of clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant. 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.

Esvelt 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. Esvelt 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. Esvelt seeks to use gene drive as a catalyst to reform the scientific ecosystem. He received his PhD in biochemistry from Harvard University for inventing a synthetic microbial ecosystem to rapidly evolve useful biomolecules and earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology from Harvey Mudd College.

The NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, established in 2011, provides an opportunity got exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional post-doctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions. 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. 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.

Finucane is a Broad Fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Her 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 disease. She obtained her PhD in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in computer science and applied mathematics from the Weizmann Institute and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvard University.

Loh is the Siebel Investigator at the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology & Regenerative Machine. 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-drive regenerative medicine. Loh received his Hertz Fellowship at age 17, having already led a research project at the Genome Institute of Singapore. He earned his PhD in development biology from Stanford University School of Medicine and received his undergraduate degree in cell biology and neuroscience from Rutgers University.