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09/30/2004 07:00:00

National Institutes of Health Name Phillips, Quake as Director's Pioneer Award Winners

PASADENA, Calif.—The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that California Institute of Technology mechanical engineering and applied physics professor Rob Phillips is one of nine recipients of the first annual Director's Pioneer Award. Stephen Quake, the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Applied Physics and Physics at Caltech, currently at Stanford University, is also among this year's recipients.

The Director's Pioneer Award will provide Phillips with $2.5 million in funding for the next five years as part of the NIH's new "Roadmap for Medical Research" program. Phillips, an authority on the nanoscale mechanics of biological systems, says he will use the funding to enter into novel research areas.

"The NIH Director's Pioneer Award is both a huge honor and a privilege for which I am tremendously grateful," Phillips says. "Quite frankly, this award is going to completely transform my scientific life and will permit me to pursue some questions about the dynamics of complex systems such as cells that have been gnawing at me since I was a teenager.

"My background is of someone who builds mathematical models of these kinds of systems," he adds. "As a result of this award, we can now design and build experiments aimed at concretely exploring the extent to which our models are correct.

"In the short run, this overall vision will be played out in the context of a few key case studies, including how viruses manage the physical requirements of packing and releasing their genomes, how macromolecules conspire to decide when genes are turned on and off, and how cells respond to mechanical forces." A graduate of Washington University, Phillips has worked recently on DNA injection and packing that occur during the life cycles of bacterial viruses, as well as on how certain classes of ion channels are gated by mechanical forces. He is the author of a book titled Crystals, Defects and Microstructures that is based on his extensive work in modeling materials and which served as his jumping-off point for modeling living materials.

According to a statement from the NIH, the Director's Pioneer Award is intended to provide substantial support for researchers "willing and able to explore ideas that were considered risky at their inception.

"Such individuals are more likely to take such risks when they are assured of adequate funds for a sufficient period of time, and with the freedom to set their own research agenda," the statement continued. "Many of the new opportunities for [biomedical] research involve crossing traditional disciplinary lines and bringing forward different conceptual frameworks as well as methodologies. These developments appear to justify support for more aggressive risk-taking and innovation."

The nine recipients were formally announced at 9 a.m. PDT Wednesday by NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. During a telebriefing, Zerhouni and the Pioneer Award program cochairs, Stephen E. Straus, M.D., and Ellie Ehrenfeld, Ph.D., will discuss the selection process and the areas of research the awardees will explore.