HHMI At Hopkins: First-Hand Faculty Experiences

This article is the second of a three-part series on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  Part I, published in November, talked about the history of HHMI.  This second article focuses on HHMI at Johns Hopkins and the experiences of the faculty participating in the HHMI Investigator program.

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has long participated in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator program, and has accumulated quite a few faculty members who hold HHMI investigatorships.  BCMB News wanted to hear their stories, so we went looking for some entertaining anecdotes and sage advice.

HHMI Investigator Alex Kolodkin, Department of Neuroscience

Alex Kolodkin, Dept. of Neuroscience

Johns Hopkins has 12 HHMI faculty that are in the BCMB program, spread across several departments.  The areas of research that HHMI focuses on are genetics, cell biology, immunology, neuroscience, and structural biology; Hopkins has faculty that encompass all of those areas.  Many of the Hopkins HHMI investigators commented on how they felt fortunate to be involved with the institute, and have resources available for not only their labs, but also for their research community.  “I think it raises the general level of science in any one place,” says HHMI investigator Alex Kolodkin.

Jeremy Nathans, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Jeremy Nathans, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics.

Several faculty have been HHMI investigators for over twenty years.  Jeremy Nathans and Richard Huganir both recalled how the selection of investigators was much different in the 1980s.  “I was a graduate student at Stanford in the Biochemistry department,” Dr. Nathans recalls.  “I had a quite successful stint as a student, so I was on their radar screen apparently and I got a call one day in the lab from George Cahill.”  Dr. Cahill was a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and was akin to an HHMI “talent scout,” meaning he looked for people who he thought HHMI might be interested in supporting and approached them about the program.  He offered that if Dr. Nathans found himself at a university with an established HHMI program, he could be enlisted as an HHMI investigator.  Many universities, including Johns Hopkins, had these established HHMI positions.  “Basically, I came down to inteview in the Neuroscience department, but at that time Dan Nathans and Sol Snyder were recruiting neuroscience people for the Hughes investigator [post], so you just came in to the position and it was a Hughes position,” said Dr. Huganir.

Sin Urban, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics

Sin Urban, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics

No matter how long faculty had participated in the HHMI program, they all agreed that one of the most rewarding aspects was the freedom to be creative in their scientific work.  Although maintaining a sense of creativity is certainly not exclusive to HHMI labs, several faculty mentioned that being part of HHMI gave them an extra nudge in a direction they otherwise may not have taken.  “My HHMI appointment challenged me.  I had to take a new line of research that would fulfill the challenge they set forth,” said Sin Urban.  Dr. Urban received a special Early Career Scientist Award in 2009.  This award “provided me with opportunities to do cutting edge science, and with new and emerging technologies,” he said.  Dr. Nathans also commented that, “The Hughes money gives you a freedom that is very valuable, and Hughes certainly expects us to take full advantage of that.  They’ve said repeated[ly] they don’t want more and faster versions of the things you could do without their funding.  They want you to do something that you would not be able to do without their support.”

HHMI Investigator Cynthia Wolberger, Department of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry

Cynthia Wolberger, Dept. of Biophysics and Biophysical Chemistry

Another aspect of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that at least one faculty member appreciated was its dedication to growth in the field of x-ray crystallography.  HHMI investigator Cynthia Wolberger recalls that in the 1980s, “[X-ray crystallography] was a sleepy field that nobody went into, and you couldn’t get a job, [but] it had just produced some spectacular successes due to the advent of molecular cloning.”  Dr. Wolberger explained that government funding had not kept up with the surge of structural biology research, and the old adage “no crystals, no money” did not make it easy for an investigator to fund their work.  HHMI “made a decision to invest in structural biology, …and that led to an explosion of really exciting work.”  HHMI was eventually recognized by the American Crystallographic Association for their contributions to the field.

DJ Pan, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics

DJ Pan, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics

The consensus among faculty was that the current HHMI application process was much different than applying for federal funding.  HHMI asks investigators not to write a detailed NIH-style grant that focuses on particular experiments, but rather to write about what they have contributed to a field, and how they plan to continue to contribute in a larger sense.  DJ Pan said his former postdoctoral advisor, Gerry Rubin (now Vice President of HHMI and Director of HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus), drew a comparison between selecting faculty for HHMI and studying gene function in genetics.  Dr. Pan explained that, “One can apply a simple ‘deletion test’ in both scenarios.  The idea is that if you remove a scientist from the field he or she is in, what’s the phenotype?  So if you think about it this ‘deletion test’ is really asking a very different question as in a normal grant application.”

Robert Siliciano, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics

Robert Siliciano, Dept. of Molecular Biology and Genetics

Entering into an HHMI competition can be a little like playing the lottery – selection takes a bit of luck.  First of all, you must fit the criteria for the particular competition.  The most recent competition was only open to investigators with between 5 and 15 years of experience as a PI.  Other competitions have been open only to particular areas of study.  Robert Siliciano recalls that, “When I applied there was a special competition for people doing what they call patient-oriented research.”  Secondly, there are many labs whose research is high-quality, and HHMI can only fund a handful of these labs.  Alex Kolodkin summarized this element nicely by saying, “There is a certain amount of luck involved based on where your work is at the time you actually apply.”

David Ginty, Dept. of Neuroscience

David Ginty, Dept. of Neuroscience

Howard Hughes also has funding available to investigators, both HHMI and non-HHMI, to host conferences at the Janelia Farm Research Campus.  One faculty member who has taken advantage of this opportunity is David Ginty.  Dr. Ginty recently  got together with Steven Hsiao, a professor of Neuroscience at the JHU Homewood campus, to apply for HHMI to sponsor a meeting on somatosensation.  Their application was accepted, and the conference will be hosted next year.  “It’s great because we can invite all these people we want from all over the world and [HHMI will] support people to come and interact at this meeting.  There’s going to be about 50 participants, 35-40 speakers.  We’re going to try to bring together somatosensory biology [research] using different paradigms, different model systems.  It’s going to be really fun; I’m excited about that,” Dr. Ginty said.

Richard Huganir, Dept. of Neuroscience

Richard Huganir, Dept. of Neuroscience

HHMI hosts many other conferences at Janelia Farm for their investigators to get together and share their research.  Many faculty commented that these meetings were interesting, yet daunting to attend.  “Well, it’s a little intimidating to talk when you know you talk right after a Nobel prize winner and right before another Nobel prize winner,” says Dr. Huganir.  Dr. Pan also found the HHMI conferences to be a different experience.  He said, “Of course the HHMI meetings are absolutely brilliant because you get to talk to some of the best scientists in the world, and I can tell you for me to give a presentation there I feel like a graduate student.  Honestly that’s how I feel whenever I go there – I’m very nervous and to give a talk makes you feel like you’ve turned the clock back fifteen years.  It’s not necessarily a bad feeling, I think it’s good sometimes, you know, we need to step out of the comfort zone.”

Overall, it seems as though HHMI has had a positive influence on the research community here at Hopkins, and also on modern biological research in the larger sense.  Dr. Nathans commented that, “If you look at the legacy of Howard Hughes, what he has left to the world would probably surprise him because I think most of the things he accomplished in his lifetime have faded compared to what [HHMI] has accomplished.  Certainly going forward that will be evermore the case.  I think 50 years from now his legacy will be the institute – there will be virtually nothing else.  Hopefully that will be a growing legacy.”

-Diedre Ribbens


4 thoughts on “HHMI At Hopkins: First-Hand Faculty Experiences

  1. Pingback: Following Their Footsteps: Hopkins HHMI faculty give advice for young investigators | BCMB News

  2. Pingback: December Issue | BCMB News

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