Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

HHMI award lets biochemist explore big ideas

For the next six years, a prestigious award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will allow Ming Lei to push ahead, unfettered by funding worries, in his search to understand the activity of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes.

Photo courtesy of UMHS Public Relations

Lei, an assistant professor of biological chemistry at the Medical School, is one of 50 scientists at 33 institutions nationwide to receive the institute’s new Early Career Scientist awards March 26. He was chosen from more than 2,000 applicants.

Telomeres shorten as people age. Lei’s work will aid the understanding of the aging process and may lead to a new approach to treating cancer.

HHMI has long supported established scientists. The new program is designed for scientists who are in the first two-to-six years of their careers. The goal: to help promising researchers pursue their most creative ideas without being sidetracked by the often-frustrating quest for funding.

HHMI will provide each Early Career Scientist with full salary, benefits and a research budget of $1.5 million during the six-year appointment. The institute also will cover other expenses, including research space and equipment purchase. The awards begin in September.

“This support from HHMI will stimulate me to do the research that I am passionate about, rather than being guided by what can be funded under the current funding climate,” Lei says.

HHMI, a nonprofit medical research organization that is one of the nation's largest philanthropies, plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States. In the past two decades it has made investments of more than $8.3 billion for the support, training and education of the nation's most creative and promising scientists. HHMI's principal mission is conducting basic biomedical research, which it carries out in collaboration with more than 60 universities and medical centers, including U-M, and other research institutions throughout the United States.