Sometimes you just have to do it yourself. That’s what theStony Brook Foundation did in establishing The Discovery Fund, which supports pioneering scientific breakthroughs with philanthropic giving in response to declining federal grants for basic research. Now, the finalists for the inaugural Discovery Fund Award have been selected and will compete for up to $200,000; the recipient(s) of which will be announced immediately following their presentations which will take place on Thursday, December 11 in New York City.
The four finalists, Gábor Balázsi, Eden Figueroa, Laurie T. Krug and Emre Salman – early-career Stony Brook faculty in the STEM disciplines – were picked from 22 proposals reviewed by a panel of six SUNY Distinguished Professors. They will present their ideas to a review panel of high profile external judges versed in research, philanthropy, and science communication.
Unique to the Stony Brook award is the aim to further the art of effective science communication—through the involvement of the actor, director, and writer Alan Alda, and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. On December 11, the finalists’ “TED Talk”-type presentations will challenge them to communicate their research concepts in 10 minutes. This will help them better understand the skills required to clearly convey scientific meaning and import—skills they will need to apply for, and win, grants from public agencies, as well as to communicate the importance and excitement of science to political and industry leaders as well as members of the general public.
“The Discovery Fund is a means to champion Stony Brook faculty who dare to tackle the biggest ideas in science,” says Stony Brook President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., M.D. “The findings from basic research have transformed our lives, improved our health and well-being, and helped us understand our world and our universe.”
The Discovery Fund is Stony Brook’s response to a nationwide call to augment public funding of university research with philanthropic support. The Fund was created by the Stony Brook Foundation, a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to raise and manage private philanthropic gifts, grants, and funds to advance the goals of Stony Brook University. The Discovery Fund is one of 15 such funds supported by universities in the Science Philanthropy Alliance who are working together to increase private investment in fundamental research.
“The Discovery Fund is a totally new approach for attracting financial support for groundbreaking research ideas created by Stony Brook faculty,” says David O. Conover, Interim Vice President for Research at Stony Brook University. “With cutbacks in federal funding, it is imperative that we open up new avenues for funding of basic research. The Fund also represents an opportunity for friends of Stony Brook to contribute directly to our central mission of creating new discoveries that advance knowledge and understanding of our world.”
About the Finalists
Gábor Balázsi is the Henry Laufer Associate Professor in the Laufer Center for Physical & Quantitative Biology in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Eden Figueroa is an Assistant Professor of Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, working with Tzu-Chieh Wei, Assistant Professor in the C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Laurie T. Krug is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, collaborating with Balaji Sitharaman, Associate Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering. Emre Salman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, working with Milutin Stanaćević, an Associate Professor in the department.
Gábor Balázsi saw increasing evidence that cells become abnormal even without genetic mutations. He developed tools that artificially increase or decrease the fraction of abnormal cells without introducing mutations; he’s trying to discover how non-genetically abnormal cells and cellular diversity inside tumors affect cancer progression. Once understood, it may then be possible to develop medications to control cellular diversity and increase treatment efficiency. “The Discovery Fund award would help me pursue these nonconventional ideas that are risky but could be highly impactful if successful,” he says. “It will help me try to break new ground and explore directions that would be inaccessible through traditional funding mechanisms.”
Eden Figueroa’s lab is trying to create new technology based on quantum mechanics. He and Tzu-Chieh Wei are seeking to measure and control quantum mechanical effects at room temperature in atomic gases; this could lead to a quantum processor. “We are reinventing the way computers are built, in order to make them incredibly more powerful,” Figueroa says. “We would use the award to acquire new equipment to test our ideas. I am also hoping that getting the award will increase the visibility of my research, and that in turn will lead to more funding.”
Emre Salman is proposing a novel method for performing computation in energy-autonomous systems that “harvest” power from ambient sources. He and Milutin Stanaćević want to recycle electrical charge in a unique way that particularly fits wireless power harvesting systems; the proposed method significantly increases energy efficiency and computational capability. “Considering the growing contribution of the overall IT sector to global energy consumption, this project would be a significant milestone for green electronics and energy autonomous systems,” Salman says. He adds, “The Discovery Fund award would enable us to pursue this high-risk/high-reward research and develop a first prototype as a proof-of-concept, which would initiate larger-scale interdisciplinary research and a new approach to energy autonomy.”
Laurie Krug’s laboratory researches herpes viruses that are associated with cancer. She is working with Dr. Balaji Sitharaman to pursue their idea of delivering molecular scissors to the site of virus infection using nanoparticles. “We need to understand how these viruses set up shop in specific cells, and what makes them wake up after years of dormancy in our bodies,” Krug says. “Our ‘nanotools’ will be a new approach to understanding how viruses cause disease.”
Krug says this is purely exploratory science, with no initial hypotheses. “The preliminary data we generate through the support of the Discovery Fund will be instrumental to convince agencies such as the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and the National Science Foundation [NSF] that this technology can be applied to basic research investigations of fundamental biological questions, and may evolve towards translational applications to treat and possibly cure disease.”
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