Princeton faculty win prestigious NIH awards

Four Princeton faculty members have been awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health for work deemed "high impact" by the federal medical research agency.

Three of the NIH awards will enable recipients to pursue "exceptionally innovative approaches that could transform biomedical and behavioral science," according to the agency. A fourth, new award is designed to stimulate work that may lead to groundbreaking opportunities for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in drug abusers.

Saeed Tavazoie, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, is one of 16 researchers in the country named a recipient of the 2008 NIH Director's Pioneer Award. He will receive $2.5 million in direct costs over five years to support his work exploring how networks of cells allow microbes to carry out cognitive behavior.

Among the 31 scientists named recipients of 2008 NIH Director's New Innovator Awards are: Zemer Gitai, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology; and Coleen Murphy, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. They each will be supported by $1.5 million in direct costs over five years.

In addition, Ileana Cristea, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, is one of three recipients of the new Avant-Garde Award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the NIH. The awards are modeled after the NIH's Pioneer Awards to encourage "scientists of exceptional creativity," according to the institute. She will receive $2.5 million over five years.

Tavazoie came to Princeton in 2000 after earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University. His other honors include a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.

He will use his Pioneer Award to study how regulatory networks are shaped by the complex and dynamic environments of native microbial habitats. Research led by Tavazoie, published in Science earlier this year, showed for the first time that bacteria don't just react to changes in their surroundings -- they anticipate and prepare for them. His work challenges prevailing notions that only organisms with complex nervous systems have this ability.

Gitai uses novel imaging methods to study how bacteria grow and divide. A specialist in cell biology, Gitai earned his Ph.D. from the University of California-San Francisco and came to Princeton in 2005 after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

As part of the New Innovator program, Gitai will employ novel technologies to develop new classes of antibiotics. This effort will seek to identify both the proteins that help harmful bacteria to grow and small molecules that disrupt bacterial proliferation. His previous honors include a Beckman Young Investigator Award and a collaborative Young Investigator Grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program.

Murphy, whose lab studies molecular mechanisms underlying aging, earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University and did postdoctoral research at the University of California-San Francisco. A faculty member since 2005, she was named a Distinguished Young Scholar in Medical Research for 2008 by the W.M. Keck Foundation. Among other awards, she was selected as a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences. 

She will use the New Innovator Award to study the causes of reproductive aging and help identify candidates for the treatment and prevention of age-related reproductive decline and maternal, age-related birth defects.

Cristea, who wants to understand the mechanisms that control the fate of cells under invasion by pathogens, applies technology to address significant biological issues. She developed a method that allows her to track specific proteins and any biological molecules that may interact with them. She first applied this technology to study the interplay between a virus and its host in Sindbis fever, a mosquito-borne illness, and has extended this technology to the study of other viruses, including human cytomegalovirus and HIV.

An expert in mass spectrometry, Cristea came to Princeton in February 2008 from Rockefeller University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Manchester in England. She has won the Bordoli Prize from the British Mass Spectrometry Society and earlier was awarded the Rockefeller University Women and Science Fellowship.

"These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through barriers and radically shift our understanding," said Elias Zerhouni, director of the NIH.

The awards are designed to encourage highly creative scientists in the early stages of their careers.

"These programs are central elements of NIH efforts to encourage and fund especially novel investigator-initiated research, even if it might carry a greater-than-usual degree of risk of not succeeding," Zerhouni said. Nothing is more important, he added, "than stimulating and sustaining deep innovation, especially for early career investigators and despite challenging budgetary times."