DAVIS -- A geneticist from the University of California, Davis, is one of 50 researchers nationwide named today as Early Career Scientists by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
Neil Hunter, associate professor of microbiology and of molecular and cellular biology, was selected from among 2,000 scientists who applied for the 50 positions. This new HHMI initiative is designed to provide the country’s most promising young researchers “the freedom to explore [their] best ideas without worrying about where to find the money to fund those experiments,” according to a press release from the institute.
With his appointment, Hunter becomes the first UC Davis faculty member to join the prestigious ranks of HHMI faculty.
“Neil Hunter is a real star,” said Ken Burtis, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “Howard Hughes scientists are the upper echelon of biological researchers in the United States. If you look every year at the U.S. Nobel Prize winners in the biological sciences, or any of the other top science award winners, odds are that they have earlier been recognized as an HHMI investigator.”
Over the six-year tenure of the award that begins this September, Hunter will continue to work at UC Davis, but the institute will provide his full salary, benefits and a $1.5 million research budget. Additional expenses will also be covered, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.
Hunter has focused much of his work on the process known as homologous recombination. This swapping of similar segments of DNA between chromosome pairs plays two crucial roles in most organisms. It serves as the repair mechanism for DNA damage that occurs during regular cell division. And it creates new DNA combinations during the process of meiosis — the division that specialized reproductive cells undergo to produce eggs and sperm. Because these new combinations create genetic variation within populations, they are the underpinnings of evolution.
Errors that occur in homologous recombination can have severe consequences. They are linked to a number of disorders, such as Down syndrome, and some inherited cancers, including the breast and ovarian cancers that result from defects in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. They can also cause severe developmental defects that end in spontaneous abortion.
Hunter has identified several previously unknown steps in the process of homologous recombination in yeast. Now he’s moving his research to mice and the more complex mammalian system. Results of his studies may some day lead to strategies to prevent cancer and therapies for infertility.
“Neil’s specific focus on homologous recombination in meiosis involves an extremely creative mix of genetics combined with physical analysis of recombining DNA molecules,” Doug Nelson, chair of the microbiology department, wrote in an e-mail. “Neil Hunter is a stellar researcher, a gifted teacher and a wonderful colleague.”
Hunter obtained a Ph.D. in genetics from Oxford University’s Wolfson College in 1996. After working for six years as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University with Nancy Kleckner, a world leader in the field of meiosis, he arrived at UC Davis in 2002.
The geneticist has not had time to map out his plans for the award. But he does have some thoughts.
“The HHMI award will allow us to continue several new lines of investigation instead of one much narrower focus,” he said. “It’s going to allow us to continue working in the mouse and to get a little more imaginative with some projects that wouldn’t be immediately fundable by the usual routes.”
A million ideas are always coursing through his head, he admits. And while most of them are not something he’d try to implement, he’s grateful that the award will provide the latitude to test some of the better ones.
Ranked as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, HHMI is a nonprofit medical research organization with the principal mission of furthering basic biomedical research. As of September 2008, its endowment fund stood at $17.5 billion.
The principal goal of its new Early Career Scientist award is to provide the kind of latitude that Hunter is anticipating. The nine female and 41 male recipients of the award come from 33 research institutions around the country and have led their own laboratories for two to six years. During this precarious period in a young scientist’s career, funding can be particularly difficult to obtain, said Ken Burtis.
“The young scientist is launched, heading off on his or her trajectory, poised for spectacular success, but then maybe they have trouble obtaining sufficient funds to support their rapidly expanding programs,” he explained. “This level of support to these young scientists will lead to some great scientific advances.”
HHMI’s second Early Career Scientist competition will not take place until 2012.
For a full list of award winners and more information about HHMI, go to http://www.hhmi.org/news/ecs20090326.html.
About UC Davis
For 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 31,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $500 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science — and advanced degrees from five professional schools: Education, Law, Management, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine. The UC Davis School of Medicine and UC Davis Medical Center are located on the Sacramento campus near downtown.