Education Outreach Goes Virtual

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed local schools this past year, Salk’s Education Outreach department had to get creative to continue its mission of teaching and inspiring students to pursue careers in science. They quickly adapted and rolled out virtual options for popular programs, to great success.

The Heithoff-Brody High School Summer Scholars program normally accepts 10 to 12 students each year to intern at Salk. Because the program had to go virtual, it was modified to the Introduction to Research Science and Communication Virtual Program and accommodated 76 students from 40 different schools, selected from a pool of over 400 applicants hailing from 10 states and two additional countries (Mexico and India). Over four weeks, these high school students completed virtual lab simulations, learned about common laboratory practices, and were provided professional development opportunities. After completing the program, 93.4% of students said they were interested in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Additionally, the Institute’s popular Mobile Science Lab was transformed into a virtual experience. It brought volunteer scientists into distance-learning classrooms to conduct a combination of minds-on and hands-on biotechnology activities, including a DNA extraction, with middle school classrooms all over San Diego. The Virtual Mobile Science Lab is on pace to reach more than 770 students from more than 20 schools in nine different San Diego zip codes by the end of the calendar year.

Finally, both the Summer Scholars program and the Virtual Mobile Science lab took advantage of SciChats, an additional EO program. The interactive sessions allowed students to learn over Zoom from volunteer scientists about their research and what it’s like to be a scientist. By the end of 2020, 53 SciChats will have been held, compared to an average of six in previous years.

To learn more about Education Outreach, as well as access virtual tools for learning, visit

Edward Stites receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award

Assistant Professor Edward Stites has been named an NIH Director’s New Innovator for 2020 as part of the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. The award “supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators,” according to the NIH and provides $1.5 million for a 5-year project. For his project, Stites will use mathematical and biological approaches to identify strategies to convert failed therapeutics into effective agents.

Dannielle Engle wins New Investigator Award

Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle has been awarded a New Investigator Award from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) to examine how tobacco use promotes cellular changes that lead to pancreatic cancer. Engle will receive more than $1 million over 3 years to develop new models for examining how tobacco carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) lead to tumor development and metastasis.

Ronald Evans receives NOMIS Award

Professor Ronald Evans, director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology, has been awarded a 2020 NOMIS Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award by the NOMIS Foundation, a Swiss foundation that supports high-risk basic research. The award, which totals $2.5 million, recognizes scientists for their “outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and human progress through their pioneering, innovative and collaborative research,” according to NOMIS. The award will enable Evans to decode how different parts of the body, including the brain, endocrine glands, gut, liver, immune cells and the microbiome, cooperate to maintain health.

Rewarding Out-of-the-box ideas: the 2020 Salk INNOVATION Grant Awards

Every year, the Salk Innovation Grants Program awards fund out-of-the-box ideas from Salk labs that hold significant promise but may not yet have the track record to attract attention from more traditional funding sources.

Awarded semi-annually by a competitive peer-review process, this program is critical to catalyze emerging science with the power to redefine the future and has led to a host of impactful discoveries since its launch in 2006 by the forward-thinking minds of then-Board chair Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, who have supported the program every year since its existence.

Congratulations to all of the 2020 winners!


Collaboration Grants

These collaborative grants provide seed funding to large, ambitious ideas involving three or more Salk investigators.

Professors John Reynolds, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte and Rusty Gage will examine the hallmarks of aging in animal models to determine whether mobile DNA elements, called LINE1 retrotransposons, can be manipulated to slow or reverse aging to create an innovative healthy aging intervention.

Professor Martyn Goulding, Associate Professor Axel Nimmerjahn and Assistant Professor Sung Han will investigate how sensory signals from the skin, the biggest sensory organ, are processed as they travel to the brain. The project will potentially reveal new targets for sensory dysfunction, which can occur with chronic pain and autism spectrum disorders.


Rose Hills Grant

Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle was named The Rose Hills Foundation’s 2020-2021 Innovator Grant Program awardee. The award provides $100,000 for Engle to investigate how the sugar CA19-9 makes pancreatic cancer more aggressive, increases metastatic spread, and interacts with metastatic sites. As most pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed with metastatic disease, blocking CA19-9 interactions may intercept metastatic spread.


2020 Innovation Grants

One of the holy grails of circadian biology research is to understand what determines whether an animal is active during the day (diurnal) or during the night (nocturnal). To begin to answer this question, Professor Satchin Panda will measure changes in hormones and gene activity as two species of animals—the night monkey and mouse—switch between diurnal and nocturnal lifestyles. One potential outcome of this work will be strategies for improving the health and life quality of shift workers, a growing fraction of the worldwide workforce.

The RAS protein is frequently mutated in some of the most difficult-to-treat cancers, including lung and colon. To better understand the contribution of RAS to cancer, Assistant Professor Edward Stites will activate a particularly deadly version of RAS in the microscopic worm C. elegans, a widely used model organism. Subsequent genetic and chemical screens will help to reveal new drugs and therapeutic strategies for treating RAS-associated cancers.

Cancer cells are metabolically greedy, which often leads to nutrient depletion within and around a tumor. Professor and Director of the NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis Susan Kaech hypothesizes that this lack of nutrients starves immune cells that might otherwise recognize and eliminate the tumor. The team will map the nutrient landscape of different tumors, with the goal of identifying specific nutrients (metabolites) that boost immune cell effectiveness. Results will help to improve current anti-cancer immunotherapies.

Joanne Chory RecEives Pearl Meister Greengard Award

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Professor Joanne Chory, who is the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology and director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at Salk, has been awarded the 2020 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, a preeminent international award recognizing outstanding women scientists. The award recognizes Chory for fundamentally changing researchers’ understanding of plant growth and development, and for her groundbreaking efforts to combat climate change. The Pearl Meister Greengard Prize was founded by the late Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Paul Greengard, in honor of his mother.

Five Salk researchers awarded 2020 Padres Pedal the Cause grants

A record $3.1 million was raised by last year’s Padres Pedal the Cause event, funding cancer research at five San Diego facilities, including the Salk Institute.

Salk Professors Ronald Evans, Tony Hunter, Susan Kaech and Reuben Shaw, and Assistant Professor Dannielle Engle, were among the collaborative mix of researchers and medical professionals to receive funding this year.

An all-time-high number of participants—nearly 3,000—took part in the sixth-annual Pedal the Cause event on November 16, 2019, which included multiple cycling courses, a 5K, spin classes and kid-friendly activities. Proceeds from the event support innovative cancer projects with a major emphasis on collaborative, translational research that offers a clear path to clinical trials.

Padres Pedal the Cause provides grants to cross-institutional teams of scientists and physicians at the Salk Institute, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego Health and Rady Children’s Hospital. The annual event has raised more than $13 million to fund 62 cancer research projects since its inception.

This year’s Padres Pedal the Cause event, originally scheduled for November 1, 2020, has been moved to spring 2021.

Salk Institute and BridgeBio Pharma Collaborate to Advance Therapies for Genetically Driven Diseases

The Salk Institute and BridgeBio Pharma, Inc., announced a three-year collaboration to advance cutting-edge academic discoveries in genetically driven diseases toward therapeutic applications. Under the partnership, BridgeBio will help fund research programs from Salk’s world-renowned innovative cancer research, with the eventual goal of developing new therapeutics for patients in need.

Consortium led by Salk to receive expected $5 million for new center to study cellular aging in humans

Aging is the most significant risk factor for human disease. Human cells and tissues age at different rates depending on their intrinsic properties, where they are in the body and environmental exposures. Yet, scientists do not fully understand this variability and how it contributes to overall human aging, risk for disease or therapeutic responses.

The Salk Institute will establish a world-class San Diego Nathan Shock Center (SD-NSC), a consortium with Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute and the University of California San Diego to study cellular and tissue aging in humans. The Center will be funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health and is expected to total $5 million over the next 5 years.

Salk Professor Gerald Shadel led the successful grant proposal and will be director of the center. Professors Rusty Gage, Martin Hetzer and Tatyana Sharpee will lead several of the key research and development core facilities.

The SD-NSC will be one of a network of eight Nathan Shock Centers nationwide, which are named after Nathan Shock, Director of the Gerontology Research Center at National Institutes of Health for nearly 35 years and regarded by many as the “father of gerontology.”

Salk Welcomes Top Scientists in Cancer Biology and Biophysics

Over the summer, the Salk Institute hired two new assistant professors in the fields of cancer biology and biophysics, respectively. Daniel Hollern and Pallav Kosuri will bring fresh perspectives to advance an understanding of, and find new treatments for, breast cancer and heart disease.

“We are elated to bring on two highly accomplished early-career scientists,” says Salk President Rusty Gage. “Daniel and Pallav represent the bright future of the Salk Institute, and we are excited to see what innovations and collaborations stem from their research endeavors here at Salk.”

Assistant Professor Pallav Kosuri joins Salk from Harvard University, where he was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Xiaowei Zhuang. At Salk, he will join the faculty of the Integrative Biology Laboratory. His work aims to better understand the physics of biological machines—from muscles contracting, to enzymes reading and editing DNA. Specifically, he is developing technologies to visualize and measure the movements of single molecules and map their organization in tissues, in order to create an integrated theory of how mechanical movement gives rise to biological function. He will apply this knowledge to examine heart disease in order to better understand why the heart experiences mechanical failure and to point the way to innovative new treatments.

Originally from Sweden, Kosuri completed his PhD in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University. He currently holds two patents for his technologies, along with numerous accolades including the Titus M. Coan Prize for Excellence in Basic Research, the Columbia University distinction award for doctoral defense and a Fulbright Scholarship.

Assistant Professor Daniel Hollern comes to Salk from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Charles Perou. Hollern joins Salk’s NOMIS Center for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis as well as its renowned NCI-designated Cancer Center to pursue research that can improve the treatment of cancer patients. In particular, his lab will focus on triple-negative breast cancer (one of the five deadly cancers being researched in Salk’s Conquering Cancer Initiative), where management of advanced disease is very challenging. Hollern takes a multi-disciplinary approach to investigate responses to cancer therapies, immune cell dynamics and the mechanisms controlling tumor growth. In order to improve treatment strategies for cancer patients, he will leverage functional genomics and experimental biology to study the anti-tumor immune response.

Hollern earned his PhD in cell and molecular biology from Michigan State University and holds numerous awards including the Joseph S. Pagano Award, consecutive NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) and the Aitch Foundation Award.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Latest discoveries, events & more.