• 2013 NIH New Innovator Awardee Viviana Gradinaru (left) and Early Independence Awardee Elaine Hsiao (right)

NIH Director's Awards Granted to Two Caltech Scientists

Two researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have received Director's Awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) High Risk-High Reward research program. The awards, funded by the NIH Common Fund, are intended to support scientists proposing highly innovative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical research.

The awards are intended to support "visionary" investigators, at all career stages, "pursuing science with the potential to transform scientific fields and accelerate the translation of scientific research into improved health," said NIH director Francis S. Collins in announcing the awards on September 30. The High Risk-High Reward Research program, he added, "allows researchers to propose highly creative research projects across a broad range of biomedical research areas that involve inherent risk but have the potential for high rewards."

NIH New Innovator Award

An NIH New Innovator Award, which is given to investigators who are within 10 years of receiving their terminal degree, was granted to assistant professor of biology Viviana Gradinaru (BS '05) for her research involving the neuronal effects of deep brain stimulation (DBS)—a therapy in which electrical impulses are applied to the brain to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

"Deep brain stimulation has been used to ameliorate the symptoms of Parkinson's, however, very little is known about what DBS does to affect the course of the disease and to the cells themselves. The goal of the award is to look at the effect of this type of stimulation treatment on cellular health in a model organism," Gradinaru says. With the award, Gradinaru will also investigate the protective role of growth factors—substances made by the body that regulate cell division and cell survival—on neurons in the brain. The results of these studies could provide insights about measures to slow down the progression of neurodegenerative disease, she says.

Gradinaru received her bachelor's from Caltech in 2005 and her doctorate from Stanford University in 2010. After also completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, she joined the Caltech faculty in 2012.

NIH Early Independence Award

Elaine Hsiao (PhD '13), a postdoctoral scholar in biology and chemistry and chemical engineering, received an NIH Early Independence Award to support her work in identifying the role of microbes in the release of neurotransmitters—chemicals that relay signals from neurons in the brain and peripheral nervous system. The award is granted to exceptional junior scientists to allow them to move immediately into independent research positions and skip the time traditionally spent in postdoctoral training. With this award, Hsiao will pursue her research independently as a senior research fellow at Caltech.

"There's an increasing appreciation that microbes fundamentally regulate a number of normal biological processes," explains Hsiao, "and one aspect of this area of research is the finding that microbes in other areas of the body can affect the nervous system and behavior. A lot of research has been done on what responses are modulated by these microbes, but little is known about how. My area of research is to explore the biological mechanisms underlying these relationships, to pinpoint the particular communities involved, and to study them in the context of health and disease."

Hsiao received her bachelor's from UCLA in 2006 and her doctorate from Caltech in 2013, under the direction of Paul Patterson, Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini professor of biological sciences. She is currently a joint postdoctoral scholar in the laboratories of Sarkis Mazmanian, professor of biology, and Rustem Ismagilov, Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, and director of the Jacobs Institute for Molecular Engineering for Medicine.

Written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad