Yifan Cheng, Loren Frank Among 26 New HHMI Investigators

Loren Frank, PhD, left, and Yifan Cheng, PhD, are two of the 26 new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators.

Two UC San Francisco scientists have been named Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators, joining 24 other top U.S. biomedical researchers, who will receive the flexible support necessary to move their research in creative new directions.

Loren Frank, PhD, professor in the Department of Physiology, and Yifan Cheng, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, are the two honorees from UCSF. The new HHMI investigators – including four current HHMI early career scientists – were selected for their individual scientific excellence from a group of 894 eligible applicants. The scientists represent 19 institutions from across the United States.

“Being chosen as an HHMI investigator is a tremendous honor for me,” said Frank, who leads a team of 12 people in his Frank Laboratory at UCSF. “I had honestly never thought that my our work would receive the level of recognition that this represents.” 

“I am very excited about being selected as one of the 26 new HHMI investigators,” added Cheng, who leads a team of nine in his eponymously named lab. “It is a tremendous recognition of our work.”    

HHMI will provide each investigator with his or her full salary, benefits, and a research budget over their initial five-year appointment. The Institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment. Their appointment may be renewed for additional five-year terms, each contingent on a successful scientific review.

“Having the extra support for my science is already changing the way we conceive and execute our studies,” Frank said. “We can now move forward much more quickly on risky and potentially ground-breaking work, and I’m thrilled to be able to dedicate myself to doing science rather than spending much of my time writing grants.”

“The support from HHMI will provide us very much needed resources to continue our efforts to advance the technology of single particle electron cryo-microscopy and to apply it to challenging structural biology questions,” added Cheng.

HHMI encourages its investigators to push their research fields into new areas of inquiry. By employing scientists as HHMI investigators — rather than awarding them research grants — the Institute is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” HHMI investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition — even if that process takes many years.

“Our essential job is to identify and support the best people we can find,” said Erin O’Shea, vice president and chief scientific officer at HHMI. “If you study the accomplishments of the scientists we have selected, you will find they are an amazing group of talented individuals. Many are already considered leaders in their fields and some have established entirely new fields of research.”

The new investigators represent a variety of disciplines, including biochemistry, biophysics, cell biology, computational biology, genetics, immunology, neuroscience, and virology. This initiative by HHMI represents an investment in basic biomedical research of $153 million over the next five years.

“Scientific discovery requires original thinking and creativity,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “Every scientist selected has demonstrated these qualities. One of the most important things we can do at HHMI is to continue to support and encourage the best discovery research. We don’t know this for certain, but the ideas that emerge from these labs might one day change the world, and it’s our privilege to help make that happen.”

Mid-career researchers with 5 to 15 years of experience as faculty members at more than 200 institutions were eligible to apply. Applications from the 894 eligible applicants were evaluated by distinguished biomedical researchers, who narrowed the field to 59 semifinalists. The semifinalists attended a scientific symposium at HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus in April 2015 and presented a brief research talk to members of the review panel. The 26 new HHMI investigators were selected shortly after the scientific symposium.

Through its flagship HHMI Investigator Program, the Institute has joined with more than 70 distinguished U.S. universities, hospitals, institutes, and medical schools to create an environment that provides flexible, long-term support for approximately 330 Hughes investigators and members of their research teams. HHMI investigators are widely recognized for their creativity and research accomplishments: 182 HHMI investigators are members of the National Academy of Sciences and there are currently 17 Nobel laureates within the investigator community.

The new HHMI investigators are expected to begin their appointments in September 2015.

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