UC Santa Barbara's Irene Chen (right) was among the university's recipients of NIH's high-risk, high-reward research grants.

Credit: Sonia Fernandez

UC Santa Barbara's Irene Chen (right) was among the university's recipients of NIH's high-risk, high-reward research grants.

University of California researchers received 16 of 88 National Institutes of Health awards announced Tuesday to pursue innovative and transformative research projects.

That includes 10 New Innovator Awards, four Early Independence Awards, one Pioneer Award and one Transformative Research Award.

NIH traditionally supports research projects, not individual investigators. However, the agency’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research awards program, which provided the grants, seeks “to identify scientists with ideas that have the potential for high impact, but may be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process.”

“The program continues to support high-caliber investigators whose ideas stretch the boundaries of our scientific knowledge,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “We welcome the newest cohort of outstanding scientists to the program and look forward to their valuable contributions.”

The New Innovator Awards support unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their doctoral degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant. UC new innovators will tackle research from understanding the biology of pancreatic cancer to finding more effective treatments for bacterial infections.

Early Independence Awards provide an opportunity for exceptional junior scientists who recently have received their doctoral degree or finished medical residency to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions. UC awardees will work on projects such as the role of the immune system’s response to cancer and understanding the roles played by specific neuron types in different aspects of breathing.

Pioneer Awards challenge investigators at all career levels to develop highly innovative approaches that could have a powerful impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral science. UC San Francisco’s Michael Fischbach hopes to develop the ability to engineer communities of gut bacteria to produce desired drug-like small molecules, a discipline he calls “synthetic ecology.”

Transformative Research Awards promote cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and are open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms. Three UC San Diego biology professors—Ethan Bier, Ananda Goldrath and Stephen Hedrick—shared a Transformative Research Award for their cancer immunology project.

This year, the NIH awarded 48 New Innovator, 16 Early Independence, 12 Pioneer and 12 Transformative Research Awards. The total funding is approximately $127 million.

UC recipients include:

UC Berkeley

  • Stephen Brohawn, New Innovator Award
  • Jacob Brunkard, Early Independence Award
  • Elçin Ünal, New Innovator Award
  • Michael Yartsev, New Innovator Award

UC San Diego

  • Ethan Bier, Transformative Research Award
  • Valentino Gantz, Early Independence Award
  • Ananda Goldrath, Transformative Research Award
  • Stephen Hedrick, Transformative Research Award
  • Jesse Jokerst, New Innovator Award
  • Elizabeth Villa, New Innovator Award

UC San Francisco

  • Bassem Al-Sady, New Innovator Award
  • Michael Fischbach, Pioneer Award
  • Rushika Perera, New Innovator Award
  • Tien Peng, New Innovator Award
  • Matthew Spitzer, Early Independence Award
  • Arun Wiita, New Innovator Award
  • Kevin Yackle, Early Independence Award

UC Santa Barbara

  • Irene Chen, New Innovator Award