Each year, NIH institutes and centers nominate outstanding young scientists for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to individuals beginning their independent research careers. The grantees, who must be new investigators in the first year of an R01 or DP2 award, are selected for their innovative research record, potential to continue on this productive route, and community service activities. In recent years, NIH has annually nominated 20 individuals, with approximately 1 or 2 of them being NIGMS grantees.
Among this year’s PECASE recipients are two NIGMS grantees, Niels Ringstad of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at New York University School of Medicine and Erica N. Larschan of Brown University. We identified them because of their cutting-edge neuroscience and developmental genetics research, respectively, and their outstanding commitment to education, mentoring and increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce.
Below, they answer questions about their research and PECASE experience and offer advice to other early career scientists.
What does your research focus on?
Neils Ringstad: Our lab studies the simple behaviors of a small roundworm to identify genes that function in chemical signaling in the nervous system. Even though the organism we study, Caenorabditis elegans, has a tiny nervous system with only 302 neurons, these neurons are very similar to the neurons in our brains and use many of the same neurotransmitters to transmit and process information. We’re particularly interested in serotonin signaling pathways, which are important therapeutic targets in psychiatry.
Erica Larschan: We study how genes are precisely targeted for regulation within the highly compact eukaryotic genome. Gene regulation is a fundamental process that is misregulated in many diseases including cancers. We are interested in identifying new proteins that could serve as targets for anti-cancer therapies.
What was it like to come to Washington, D.C., to meet NIH staff, the President and other PECASE recipients?
Ringstad: It was a tremendous honor to be an awardee. We heard a resounding endorsement of basic science and a clear statement of its value to the American people from both the White House and the NIH. That gave me and my group a boost that will last for years.
Larschan: My PECASE visit was one of the most exciting moments of my scientific career. It was a great opportunity to present brand new data from our lab to a broader audience and interact with the other PECASE winners.
What advice would you give to young investigators?
Ringstad: We pick problems to tackle because we see some good in solving them, and we pick them before we know how tough they are to solve. Don’t lose sight of the hopes and expectations that you had for your project before you did your first experiment.
Larschan: The most important piece of advice is to focus on the most exciting and central questions that you can address with your research. It is essential to use many different approaches to rigorously answer the most difficult questions.