The Los Altos-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation introduced a new class of 20 science and engineering fellows last month. The fellows, consisting of early-career researchers, will each receive $875,000 in unrestricted funds over the next five years.
Since 1988, the foundation has awarded $447 million to support 637 scientists and engineers from 54 national universities.
Xiao-Wei Wang, the Packard fellows program manager, said one of the hallmarks of the program is that the funds are unrestricted, allowing the recipients to take risks and be bold in their research. She said the goal of the program is to “find the right people and to get out of the way,” and that the program seeks candidates who are just starting out in their careers.
“We are not looking for candidates who are well-established and funded,” Wang said. “We want to support fellows at the very early stages and to help launch their careers, rather than to add on to any funding that they’ve already been able to achieve based on their accomplishments.”
A 12-member board reviewed 100 candidate proposals submitted by 50 universities across the nation. After a six-month process and several rounds of reviews, the fellows are selected.
“Having these resources to pursue whatever we think is interesting, it’s the dream of a scientist to be able to chase things with the resources, and the encouragement and backing of really accomplished scientists and the advisory board,” said Edward Chuong, one of this year’s recipients and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Chuong is looking into how DNA can help understand and predict immune responses to viruses, a topic that has become increasingly relevant given the current pandemic, using genomic and experimental approaches.
“It was really nice, really encouraging to hear from Packard that these ideas are just crazy enough – that it’s the right kind of crazy to pursue, because it’s very high risk,” Chuong said.
Carlos Ponce, an assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is exploring how the brain processes visual imagery using machine learning, electrophysiology and behavioral tasks to examine neurons.
Ponce said that with traditional grants, researchers have to “walk the line” between the feasibility of their ideas and the pressure of advancing knowledge with their research.
“That’s a big gap,” he said. “Sometimes, we can thread the needle just fine, but sometimes we need the buffer to really push the riskier ideas and, frankly, this is a fantastic way of doing it. The unrestricted nature of this fellowship is what really allows that safety zone.”
Changing the culture
The Packard Foundation makes an effort to select a diverse pool of recipients with regard to gender and race. This year’s class includes eight women.
“Talent is widespread, but access is not,” said Shruti Naik, assistant professor at New York University. “This is how you change the culture of science. If people with resources say, ‘We believe in this cause,’ the culture will follow.”
Naik’s research focuses on how human bodies react to microbial and other external stimuli, exploring how stem cells respond to environmental influences. She said the funding will enable her to take approaches that might “fail miserably,” but could be transformative if they work.
“The culture of academia … is an exclusive culture where if you’re not from a certain social standing, it’s hard to navigate,” she said. “By increasing access intentionally to people who are not from that homogenous background, you’re essentially saying, ‘We want to change this culture and make it more inclusive.’"