UCSF Discovery Fellows Program Celebrates Dollar, Donor Milestones

Effort Will Continue to Sustain Endowment for Graduate Education and Research

Christine Moore Sheridan, Amy Jacobson, Amy Chang, Sir Michael Moritz, Harriet Heyman, Meghan Zubradt and D’Juan Farmer stand during the Discovery Fellows Symposium
Sir Michael Moritz and Harriet Heyman with this year’s speakers at the Discovery Fellows Program Michael Page, PhD, Research Symposium. From left, Christine Moore Sheridan, Amy Jacobson, Amy Chang, Sir Michael Moritz, Harriet Heyman, Meghan Zubradt and D’Juan Farmer. Photo by Sonya Yruel

UC San Francisco's Discovery Fellows Program once again exceeded its goals in a second round of fundraising, with a total of 1,042 donors building an endowment of $80 million to support basic science education and research for generations to come.

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At the program’s second annual research symposium, Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, dean of the Graduate Division and vice chancellor for Student Academic Affairs, made the announcement, acknowledging the initial landmark gift of $30 million from Sir Michael Moritz, KBE, chairman of Sequoia Capital in Menlo Park, and his wife, writer Harriet Heyman, who were in attendance.

With their 2013 gift, Moritz and Heyman kick-started a fundraising challenge that was matched by UCSF institutional funds and private philanthropic contributions. Gathering so much momentum that it inspired a second phase of matching funds, it quickly became the largest endowed PhD education program in the history of the UC system. The goal was to instill a new culture of private giving for basic science graduate students and their foundational role in fueling groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

Also among the donors at the April 13 event was Roger Page, father of UCSF researcher Michael Page, PhD, who worked in the lab of Charles Craik, PhD, and died at age 36. Roger created an endowed Discovery Fellows Leadership fund in his son’s honor, which in turn inspired support from more than 60 additional donors. In Michael’s memory, the annual event will be named the Discovery Fellows Program Michael Page, PhD, Research Symposium.

Roger Page speaks during the Discovery Fellows Syposium event
Roger Page spoke at the event, relating stories about his son Michael, a UCSF researcher who died at age 36 and for whom Roger created an endowed Discovery Fellows Leadership fund. Photo by Sonya Yruel

Page proudly addressed the crowd of more than 200 faculty, donors, current Discovery Fellows, and staff, warmly relating personal anecdotes and reading notes he had received from Michael’s friends and colleagues. He described the young scientist as bright and funny, always inspiring his friends with “endless excitement and drive for science, sports, and life.” He thanked UCSF and Moritz and Heyman for creating the program that will honor his son.

While the matching challenge and fundraising goals have been met, Watkins said, efforts will continue to keep growing the fund. “Our collective goal is to continue building the endowment even higher, to ensure the future of graduate education in the basic sciences at UCSF.” She acknowledged supporters, ranging from longtime UCSF donors to new friends, current and former faculty members, and alumni. All of UCSF’s clinical chairs and many basic science faculty members contributed personal funds to the effort.

Watch Discovery Fellows Present Their Research

How to Judge a Cell by Its Cover”: Amy Chang discussed her work on the relation between cell appearance and function, which has potential to lead to greater understanding of cell behavior and possible therapies.

A Single Small RNA Controls Tears”: D’Juan Farmer summarized his findings on a single microRNA in mice that inhibits lacrimal gland function, which may lead to treatment for such disorders as dry eye and Sjogren’s syndrome.

Bearing the Bacterial Load: The Gut Microbiota and the Immune System”: Amy Jacobson presented her work on what constitutes good and bad gut bacteria. Knowledge of what is normal could provide a baseline for better understanding and treatment of inflammatory bowel disorders.

pH-Balanced for a (Pregnant) Woman: How the Malaria Parasite Exploits the Placental Niche”: Christine Moore Sheridan reported on her study of placental malaria, which negatively affects pregnancy, in an effort to develop new therapies for this and other infections of the placenta.

Developing New Tools to Research RNA Folding and Function”: Meghan Zubradt discussed her work developing a new scientific tool to determine how RNA folds in the cell, which will enable research into how RNA structures function and contribute to important biology.

The true impact of the Discovery Fellows Program emerged when the students took the stage. UCSF’s basic science graduate programs in such fields as biochemistry, cell biology and neuroscience are consistently ranked among the top biomedical research doctoral programs in the nation. The Discovery Fellows are selected from the students in those programs to serve as ambassadors for science at UCSF and in general, based on excellence in their fields as well as their communication skills, community spirit, and scientific advocacy and leadership.

The annual symposium is just one of several opportunities the program provides for students to talk up basic science, from casual conversations with friends and family to more influential forums. In March, Dean Watkins and student D’Juan Farmer visited Sacramento with other UC graduate students for the annual Graduate Research Advocacy Day to speak to state legislators about the importance of graduate research and funding to support it. Amy Jacobson said the program has inspired her to make public communications an integral part of her future career. “As scientists,” she added, “we need to help break down the perception that our work belongs in the ivory tower.”

Moritz closed the program by thanking the students, donors, and everyone who has contributed to the program. “All of us who are helping you are doing the very easy thing,” he said, addressing the Discovery Fellows. “You should think of us as people who are pushing your boat away from the dock toward winds that we hope you’ll find propitious. But it’s up to you to chart your course ... and go on the journey that is going to inspire and excite and enthuse you for many years. We wish you all the very best, and adventurous sailing.”