Four TCCI-affiliated Caltech Researchers among Five to Receive NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Awards

Five Caltech researchers—four TCCI-affiliated faculty members and one postdoctoral scholar—have been awarded grants from the High-Risk, High-Reward Research (HRHR) Program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These NIH Director’s Awards are “prestigious awards that are given to exceptionally creative scientists proposing high-risk, high-impact research at all career stages,” and were created “to support unconventional approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research,” according to the program’s press release.


Long Cai, professor of biology and biological engineering, is the recipient of a Pioneer Award. This award challenges investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical or behavioral science.


Cai’s research focuses on spatial genomics, using super-resolution and live-cell microscopy to study gene regulatory networks in cells and organisms. He and his team have developed a novel imaging method, called seqFISH, that allows over 10,000 genes to be imaged directly in single cells, revealing how cells are organized in tissues like the brain and illustrating previously unknown dynamics in stem cells.


David Van Valen, assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, is the recipient of a New Innovator Award. This award supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.


Van Valen studies the quantitative and physical principles underlying information processing in complex biological systems. He and his group are developing computational and experimental methods at the intersection of imaging, genomics, and machine learning to enable scalable measurements of living systems with single-cell resolution.


Kai Zinn, Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Biology, is the recipient of a Transformative Research Award. This award promotes cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches and is open to individuals and teams of investigators who propose research that could potentially create or challenge existing paradigms.


Zinn’s research seeks to understand how genes control the patterns and functions of synaptic connections in the brain, using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. The lab’s major focus is characterizing certain proteins that mediate interactions among neurons and between neurons and other cell types.


Matt Thomson, assistant professor of computational biology and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator, is a co-recipient of the Transformative Research Award along with Zinn.


Thomson studies self-organization and collective behavior in biological systems. He is particularly interested in understanding how communication between cells within a tissue leads to both self-organization of physical structures and a coordinated response to physiological change. Thomson’s group develops mathematical modeling and data analysis methods and develops single-cell mRNA-seq analysis methods to analyze the response of immune and brain cells to different applied signals and contexts.


Magnus Hoffmann, a postdoctoral scholar research associate in biology and biological engineering, is the recipient of an Early Independence Award. This award, established in 2011, provides an opportunity for exceptional junior scientists who have recently received their doctoral degree or completed their medical residency to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research positions.


Hoffmann recently completed his PhD in the laboratory of Pamela Björkman, the David Baltimore Professor of Biology and Bioengineering, Merkin Institute Professor, and executive officer for biology and biological engineering. He received Caltech’s Milton and Francis Clauser Doctoral Prize for his PhD thesis, titled “Nanoparticle Technologies to Cure and Prevent Infectious Diseases.” The Clauser Prize is awarded annually to a student or students whose PhD theses reflect extraordinary standards of quality, innovative research, and the potential of opening new avenues of human thought and endeavor. At Caltech, Hoffmann has developed a novel self-assembling nanoparticle technology that he will apply to design protein- and nucleic acid-based vaccine candidates against SARS-CoV-2, HIV-1, and other viruses.


Cai, Thomson, Van Valen, and Zinn are affiliated faculty members with the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.