Two CU-Boulder Scientists Land $1.5 Million Howard Hughes Medical Institute Awards

March 26, 2009

Two University of Colorado at Boulder researchers are among 50 scientists who will receive coveted Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist awards in 2009.

Joaquin Espinosa, an assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and Rob Knight, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry as well as computer science, are the recipients from CU-Boulder. HHMI will provide each Early Career Scientist with his or her full salary, benefits and a research budget of $1.5 million over the six-year appointment. The institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.

"We saw a tremendous opportunity for HHMI to impact the research community by freeing promising scientists to pursue their best ideas during this early stage of their careers," said Thomas R. Cech, HHMI president and CU-Boulder Nobel laureate in chemistry. "At the same time, we hope that our investment in these 50 faculty will free the resources of other agencies to support the work of other outstanding early career scientists."

The awards come with a six-year appointment to the institute and, along with it, the freedom to explore ideas and the funding to do so. HHMI's investment of approximately $200 million will allow these researchers to concentrate on making discoveries in the laboratory and for training the next generation of scientists.

Espinosa and his research team study how specific gene networks control the behavior of cancer cells. The HHMI award, he says, will allow the group to embark on ambitious experiments involving state-of-the-art genomics and proteomics technology with the ultimate goal of finding new targets for cancer therapeutics.

"These high-risk, high-payoff experiments would have been dismissed by most funding agencies as ‘fishing expeditions,' " said Espinosa. "Fortunately, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute carries on the adventurous spirit of its founder."

Knight and his research group combine computational and experimental techniques to ask questions about the evolution of the composition of biomolecules, genomes and communities. The HHMI award will allow his team the kind of broad technology development and sample collection that individual funding agencies often find difficult to support, Knight said.

"We all share more than 99 percent of our genomes, but only a tiny fraction of our microbial species," said Knight, "so understanding the sources and roles of these microbes is crucial."

The Early Career Scientist awards got their start last year as a way for HHMI to support young faculty in research vital to the nation's biomedical research capabilities.

The 41 men and nine women will begin their six-year, nonrenewable appointments to HHMI in September 2009. HHMI anticipates a second Early Career Scientist competition in 2012.

For more information on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Early Career Scientist competition, visit