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Rita Allen Foundation Scholars Celebrate 40 Years of Exploration and Discovery

This July, members of an outstanding group of biomedical scientists came together for the first time to learn about one another’s work and discuss broader issues affecting the future of scientific discovery.

Since 1976, scientists at the early stages of their careers have been selected as Rita Allen Foundation Scholars, earning grants to explore high-risk ideas at the frontiers of knowledge in cancer, immunology, neuroscience and pain. When the program began, it was among the first of its kind.

“It was, I think, unprecedented in our science,” said Arnold Levine, the meeting’s Honorary Chair, an emeritus chair of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and himself a pioneer in cancer research who was among the first to discover the cell-cycle regulating p53 protein and demonstrate its key role in tumor formation. The Rita Allen award, he said to a room of current and past Scholars, was the “greatest gift” new faculty members could receive, “because it gave them a chance to move in new directions.”

The program has provided millions in support to 152 early-career biomedical scientists. Today, Scholars and their institutions receive up to $110,000 annually for up to five years. Many Rita Allen Foundation Scholars have made transformative contributions to their fields of study. Former Scholars have won recognition including the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

“Our Scholars are characterized not only by their exciting scientific ideas, but also by the leadership and openness to collaboration necessary to follow them through to discovery. These qualities mean that many of the Scholars are drawn to wider issues affecting the research ecosystem, as is the Foundation itself.” —Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation

The plenary gathering of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars was made possible by the leadership of Dr. Levine and Kathleen Foley, a 1978 Scholar who has revolutionized pain research and treatment and who serves as the Rita Allen Foundation’s Medical Adviser.

It was also made possible by an influx of new resources. In 2009, as funds were added to the Rita Allen Foundation, the Board hired its first professional staff and began to examine how it could add the most value with its new capacity. In part, the Foundation drew inspiration from the success of the Scholars program to expand its venture philanthropy work to other areas, including investing in new ideas for fostering informed civic engagement.

The Foundation also focused on enhancing the Scholars program. Based on feedback from the Scholars, it began a series of gatherings to help form connections among the Scholars. First came gatherings of current Scholars, and then, to celebrate the program’s 40th anniversary, this gathering of Scholars from across the program’s history.

Click the image to download the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars anniversary magazine

Click the image to download the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars anniversary magazine.

Among the 79 current and former Rita Allen Foundation Scholars who gathered in Palo Alto, California, were members of the most recent classes of Scholars. In short scientific talks and a poster session, they shared their emerging research into critical, complex biological questions. Scholars in the 2016 class, for example, are probing mechanisms of cancer susceptibility and resistance, connections between our digestive and neurological systems, and interactions between neurons and the immune system.

Several of the more senior Scholars shared their research in keynote talks, in which they reflected on the arc of their explorations and the role the Rita Allen award played in them. These Scholars included Robert Weinberg, Andrew Fire, Thomas Jessell, Titia de Lange, Jeffrey Macklis and Charles Gilbert, each of whom have helped to define their fields of study. They were joined by leaders from a wide range of expertise who addressed the future of science and its broader role in society, including Thomas Kean, a former governor of New Jersey and Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and Robbert Dijkgraaf, a mathematical physicist, the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, and a leading international advocate for the role of science in public life.

Dr. Weinberg, a member of the first class of Scholars, opened the meeting. Since he received the Rita Allen award in 1976, his research has transformed the field of cancer genetics—including identifying the first human oncogene and the first tumor-suppressor gene. Before describing his recent work on cancer metastasis, Dr. Weinberg pointed to the ongoing significance of the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program. In an increasingly challenging funding environment, he said, the program represents crucial support for the basic ingredient of scientific progress: “the out-of-this-world-bright, young, brilliant people coming into our profession.”

The story of the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program is the story of such scientists at the early stages of their careers, pursuing fundamental new knowledge wherever it leads.

Freedom to Explore the Unknown

In 1995, as a young faculty member at The Rockefeller University, Dr. de Lange had a plan for how to investigate the role the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, play in cancer. For the occasion of the 40th anniversary meeting, she dug out her proposal letter to become a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar. In it, she explained that she would begin by delineating the structures of proteins protecting telomeres, and then would go on to identify how the telomere protection process breaks down in the early stages of cancer.

It was, she said, an ambitious plan, and her lab had few results to show so far. But the proposal was successful—Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are selected based on their promise and the importance of their ideas, rather than confidence that their research will work out as planned. And Dr. de Lange reported to the room of fellow Rita Allen Foundation Scholars, Board members and guests that her plan for how to begin the research had indeed been successful—two decades later.

Along the way, Dr. de Lange’s research has helped to open up a promising area of cancer research—including revealing a dynamic complex of six proteins protecting telomeres and shedding light on what happens during a “telomere crisis,” common in the early stages of cancer, which required overturning longstanding assumptions about the dynamics of cell division.

The importance of the freedom the Rita Allen Foundation awards allow to investigate new ideas echoed throughout the event. Sreekanth Chalasani, a 2012 Scholar, described his twisting path to developing “sonogenetics”—a potentially revolutionary new technique for activating individual neurons using ultrasound. The open nature of the Foundation’s support allowed him first to change direction in his research when the idea for sonogenetics occurred to him, and then to persist in exploring new approaches to making it work despite months of initial failure.

The Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program has sought out young investigators pursuing complex topics that benefit from the freedom to move across traditional academic and institutional boundaries. Among these is research into the underlying mechanisms of pain—a largely uncharted field when the program began. Building on its longstanding interest in pain research, since 2009 the Rita Allen Foundation has partnered with the American Pain Society to select promising early-career pain researchers to receive the Rita Allen Foundation Award in Pain. The 40th anniversary meeting included a panel discussion, organized by Dr. Foley, addressing new horizons in understanding pain—such as the still-enigmatic transition between acute and chronic pain. This research often brings together the fields of neuroscience, immunology and cancer.

As a 1989 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Dr. Fire appreciated the benefits of having funding from a foundation “that was willing to fund whatever crazy thing we wanted to do.” He took the opportunity to investigate the regulation of genes controlling muscle diversification in the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. This research eventually led to their discovery of RNA interference, for which Dr. Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Communicating the Process of Science

In addition to describing his current research on gene expression in a keynote talk, Dr. Fire also touched on an interest that lies outside the lab, but is closely linked to it—the need for a more robust interface between science and the communities who may be affected by it. Both scientists and the public need a regulatory process and a dialogue they can trust, he said, to allow scientific discoveries to translate into benefits for society.

“We have to communicate our uncertainty,” Dr. Fire said. “Some of the debates that happen in science need to happen to some degree in the public conversation.”

Many Rita Allen Foundation Scholars share an interest in strengthening connections between science and the broader society, a theme that was also reflected at the 40th anniversary meeting.

“Our Scholars are characterized not only by their exciting scientific ideas, but also by the leadership and openness to collaboration necessary to follow them through to discovery,” says Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “These qualities mean that many of the Scholars are drawn to wider issues affecting the research ecosystem, as is the Foundation itself.”

As the Foundation’s capacity has grown, it has introduced opportunities for Scholars to develop their ability to engage general audiences in scientific topics. Alongside scientific talks, the 40th anniversary gathering included several discussions about the intersection of science and society, including a panel on science communication.

Alan Leshner, the former head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, framed the discussion by saying that in a climate of growing distrust of authorities, improving science communication is no longer an option for scientists—it’s an obligation. Sam Wang, a 2000 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar and a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, carried this idea further. Regardless of the benefits scientists may access by engaging with the public about their work, he said, communicating about science is a responsibility—“It’s part of what we do as people who produce knowledge for the world.”

How to effectively engage the public in science is an open question—“a topic that makes even molecular biology seem simple,” noted Geneva Overholser, a member of the Foundation’s Board and a Pulitzer Prize–winning leader in journalism, who moderated the panel. The Rita Allen Foundation is supporting several efforts to develop understanding of the dynamics of public engagement with science, including a multidisciplinary National Academies review of the science of science communication, chaired by Dr. Leshner, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences research initiative, “The Public Face of Science,” cochaired by Overholser.

Ultimately, communicating science is not about communicating facts, said Joe Palca, a National Public Radio science correspondent who spoke on the panel. “The facts can get in the way of what you’re trying to say,” he said. Instead, people are drawn to the stories behind scientific discovery, with science “as a process of understanding the world.”

Looking to the Future

The power of approaching problems with a scientific mindset reaches beyond science itself. Speaking from his perspective as a lifelong leader in civic life and education, Governor Kean, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, addressed this broader significance.

“We’ve got no problem, in my mind, that cannot be solved,” he told the Scholars. “We examine the big questions in both science and public life, and we undertake inquiry with the intention to turn its answers into solutions that benefit humanity.”

Along with its specific applications, the work of the Scholars is part of the purpose of democracy, Governor Kean said: “You are the scientists whose work will be cited as evidence to mark our country’s progress.”

The future of scientific discovery—both its support and content—was also explored at the meeting.

Marc Kastner, President of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, spoke about efforts to attract new philanthropic support for basic scientific research. While the majority of funding for science in the United States comes from the federal government, he said, philanthropy has a critical role to play in supporting high-risk basic research, as the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program does, and jump-starting federal funding in new areas.

The philanthropist and film executive Sherry Lansing shared the work of the organization she cofounded, Stand Up To Cancer, which has successfully harnessed the power of celebrity and the entertainment industry to attract more than $370 million in donations for cancer research. It has used these funds to accelerate the development of new cancer treatments, sparking collaborative projects crossing boundaries between research institutions, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

“We examine the big questions in both science and public life, and we undertake inquiry with the intention to turn its answers into solutions that benefit humanity.” —Governor Thomas H. Kean

There is much ahead to inspire funders of science and scientists. One of the more provocative moments of the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars meeting was a panel discussion organized by Dr. Levine on the future of science. Dr. Jessell, a 1984 Scholar whose work has shaped understanding of the neurobiology of motion, anticipated a time when neuroscientists will be able to simplify the rapidly accumulating amount of knowledge about the nervous system into a theoretical framework.

Dr. Dijkgraaf, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, noted that while physics has a more mature theoretical framework than biology, most of its research concerns just 5 percent of the known universe—the other 95 percent, dark matter and dark energy, were unknown 20 years ago. And, he said, physics is now entering an exciting new chapter that brings it in closer contact with the life sciences—a “design phase” in which, rather than simply observing nature, new materials might be constructed to demonstrate laws of physics.

Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are among the scientists who will shape the future as they seek to understand the unknown—and then find new unknowns to question. As the panel’s representative from cell biology, Dr. de Lange concluded: “one of the great joys of being a biologist is that you cannot predict the future.”

The careers of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars pursuing unexpected ideas across 40 years demonstrate this unpredictability. They also point to a reliable constant: investing in new approaches to unraveling the most important and complex questions we face promises a future in which the explorations and discoveries will continue.