Early intervention

Awards allow young scientists to pursue risky research.

Rachel Wilson.

Fifty of the United States' most promising early-career biomedical scientists now have the chance to pursue their research dreams without the corresponding nightmare of trying to find funding.

Under the new Early Career Scientist initiative at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the 50 — 9 women and 41 men from 33 institutes — will receive a full salary and benefits along with $1.5 million each in research funds over the course of their six-year appointment.

“This is a time when money is tight for everyone, and I'm extremely lucky to have this measure of financial security for my lab for the next few years,” says appointee Rachel Wilson, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “This kind of grant allows us to do research that's more adventurous and risky.”

More than 2,000 scientists flooded the HHMI's offices with applications when the institute announced the programme in March 2008. Applicants had to be 2–6 years into their first independent position and could not hold more than one early-career award from anywhere else.

Wilson, who is studying how fruitfly brains process information about odours, will now extend her work to investigate how the brains deal with other sensory stimuli. Ultimately she hopes to uncover fundamental information about the human brain. “I don't claim that what I do in my lab today is going to cure human brain disease tomorrow, but this work will shed light on fundamental questions about how the human brain works,” says Wilson. “It's a shameful truth that we, as a field of neuroscience, don't understand how patterns of electricity in the human brain affect perception, thoughts and actions.”

Appointee Joe Thornton, a molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene, identifies the genetic mutations by which ancient hormone receptor proteins took on modern-day functions. He is excited about the chance to research more thoroughly.

“We've resurrected ancient proteins to understand how they've evolved new functions,” he says. “But I want to know if what we've observed is of general importance or if there are different rules for different gene families to evolve. Now we can develop new models.”

Tom Cech, who was president of the HHMI when the scheme launched, says that on a fact-finding mission last year, he and other HHMI officials found the greatest need for funding support was among those at the early stage of their careers.

Funding difficulties for early-career scientists include short-term grants that aren't renewable, which can be compounded by a drop in success rates. “When a researcher has their lab up and running and has great ideas and lots of energy, instead of being in the lab working, they're writing grant application after grant application trying to get continuous funding,” Cech says. “We decided this was an area of opportunity and we should invest in this particular stage.”

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Kaplan, K. Early intervention. Nature 458, 791 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7239-791a

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