April 9, 2002
MEDIA CONTACT: Joanna Downer
A Look Back: Twenty-Five Years of Recognizing Hopkins Researchers-In-Training
A lot has happened since 1978. Kings have fallen, conventional wisdoms have been squashed, villains slain and heroes brought to light. And that's just in laboratory dishes.
The pace of discovery at Johns Hopkins, arguably the first medical school in the country to integrate basic science and clinical medicine in education and research, is quickened by the sharp and curious minds of "young investigators" -- graduate students, medical students and postdoctoral fellows. April 11 marks the twenty-fifth annual Young Investigators' Day, created in 1978 to tip the institution's hat to its researchers-in-training by recognizing some of the remarkable advances to come at the hands of these young men and women over the previous year.
"Until 25 years ago, we didn't have any formalized recognition for those in the trenches making the discoveries," says Paul Talalay, M.D., who conceived the idea and is a continuing supporter of a special day to honor young scientists. "These young investigators are the heart and soul of the research enterprise."
The day has served another purpose as well, memorializing many people very important to Hopkins and to whom Hopkins was very important. Most of the awards -- a total of 19 this year -- are named for people linked to Johns Hopkins Medicine through education or research. The first Young Investigators' Day award, the Michael A. Shanoff Research Award, honors a young Hopkins triple graduate -- M.D., Ph.D., and B.A. -- who died in 1975 in a scuba diving accident. The award was established by Shanoff's family and friends.
"At the time, Hopkins had just the Ehrlich lecture, the research enterprise was growing and we wanted to formalize the process and give young investigators greater visibility in the institution," says Talalay. "We thought it was important, so we organized it and it grew."
Once the celebration started, funds began trickling in to honor others. In addition to family, friends and colleagues, the Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association, an alumni organization, funds awards. About one-third of the awards are open to postdoctoral fellows including clinical residents, and two-thirds to Ph.D., M.D. or combined M.D./Ph.D. candidates.
Some awards are endowed, so the prize money comes from interest earned on the original donation, while others are granted each year or for a certain period of time. The awards' monetary values fluctuate from year to year because they depend on the performance of the stock market. But the money is by no means the most important aspect of the award day, say its organizers.
"It's most important for the young people to be recognized and for the faculty and the administration to see what an extraordinary variety of talent exists here," says Talalay. "A research prize is a living memorial because it marks the evolution of an intellectual process. Each award recipient could be seen as an extension of the person for which it's named."
An analysis of the 32 Shanoff winners to date has found a practicing physician, six full professors, including a department chair, three associate professors and eleven assistant professors. Eleven past recipients are still in scientific or medical training. Shanoff recipients are affiliated with Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, the University of California system, Georgetown, and the Universities of Arizona and Texas. (In some years the Shanoff Award was shared, so there are more than 25 recipients.)
These successes of Shanoff and other awardees reflect that of Hopkins graduates in general. An award can boost a young researcher's confidence and ease getting that first postdoctoral position or academic job, but the real groundwork for success is laid before the recognition comes.
"Besides publications, presentations and fellowships, the most important way to give confidence to young scientists is for mentors to give direct feedback and nurturing," says pharmacology department director Phil Cole, M.D., Ph.D., the Shanoff winner from 1990 and mentor of Ph.D. candidate Wei Lu, this year's Alicia Showalter Reynolds Research Award recipient.
Because of the long history of the awards, there are award "grandparents" -- faculty whose early award recipients have become faculty members themselves and mentored their own student recipients. Many faculty members have had more than one award recipient come from their groups. For the full 25 years of Young Investigators' Day awards, the combined accomplishments of recipients are truly extraordinary, says Talalay.
As for all those changes since 1978? This year alone, awardees are working toward slaying leukemia by bringing a new agent to clinical trial and are squashing the conventional wisdom that nitroglycerin is diagnostic for coronary artery disease. They have revealed the possible benefits of screening for osteoporosis in people over 65 and have developed a potential genetic screening test for colon cancer.
Budding scientists fashioned a DNA-based computer that can multiply and identify prime numbers and revealed a never-before-seen aspect of transcription. They have discovered a new hero -- a brand new cellular mechanism that cleans up messenger-RNAs without stop signals, with possible clinical import -- and have toppled ideas about how the membranes of organelles are put together. And these eight projects are fewer than half those recognized this year.
Over the years, there's been one constant in recognizing young researchers at the School of Medicine, says Theresa Shapiro, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the selection committee and organizer of this year's celebration. "It's a joy and it is humbling to read the applications because the breadth, variety and quality are all very apparent," she says. "These young, talented people are our future."
For information about each 2002 award recipient's research, see http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/press/APRIL/YIDrecipients.html.