The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 7, 2003
April 7, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 29


A Look Back: Twenty-six Years of Honoring Hopkins Researchers- in- Training

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

A lot has happened since 1978. Kings have fallen, conventional wisdoms have been squashed, villains slain and heroes brought to light. And that's just in laboratory dishes.

The pace of discovery at Johns Hopkins, arguably the first medical school in the country to integrate basic science and clinical medicine in education and research, is quickened by the sharp and curious minds of "young investigators"--graduate students, medical students and postdoctoral fellows.

April 10 marks the 26th annual Young Investigators' Day, created in 1978 to tip the institution's hat to its researchers-in-training by recognizing some of the remarkable advances to come at the hands of these young men and women.

"Until 26 years ago, we didn't have any formalized recognition for those in the trenches making the discoveries," says Paul Talalay, professor of molecular pharmacology, who conceived the idea and is a continuing supporter of a special day to honor young scientists. "These young investigators are the heart and soul of the research enterprise."

The day has served another purpose as well, memorializing many people very important to Johns Hopkins and to whom Johns Hopkins was very important. Most of the awards--a total of 19 this year--are named for people linked to Johns Hopkins Medicine through education or research. The first Young Investigators' Day award, the Michael A. Shanoff Research Award, honors a young Johns Hopkins triple graduate--B.A., M.D. and Ph.D.--who died in 1975 in a scuba diving accident. The award was established by his family and friends.

"At the time, Hopkins had just the Ehrlich lecture, the research enterprise was growing, and we wanted to formalize the process and give young investigators greater visibility in the institution," Talalay says. "We thought it was important, so we organized it and it grew."

Once the celebration started, funds began trickling in to honor others. In addition to family, friends and colleagues, the Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association, an alumni organization, funds awards. About one-third of the awards are open to postdoctoral fellows including clinical residents, and two-thirds to Ph.D., M.D. or combined M.D./Ph.D. candidates.

Some awards are endowed, so the prize money comes from interest earned on the original donation, while others are granted each year or for a certain period of time. The awards' monetary values fluctuate from year to year because they depend on the performance of the stock market. But the money is by no means the most important aspect of the award day, say its organizers.

"It's most important for the young people to be recognized and for the faculty and the administration to see what an extraordinary variety of talent exists here," Talalay says. "A research prize is a living memorial because it marks the evolution of an intellectual process. Each award recipient could be seen as an extension of the person for whom it's named."

An analysis of winners of the Shanoff Award, which on some years was shared, has found a practicing physician; six full professors, including a department chair; three associate professors; and 11 assistant professors. Recipients are affiliated with Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, the University of California system, Georgetown and the universities of Arizona and Texas.

These successes and those of other awardees reflect the achievements of Johns Hopkins graduates in general. An award can boost a young researcher's confidence and ease getting that first postdoctoral position or academic job, but the real groundwork for success is laid before the recognition comes.

Ken Kinzler, professor of oncology in the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, was the 1988 recipient of the David Israel Macht Research Award. This year one of his graduate students, M.D./Ph.D. candidate Saurabh Saha, was selected to receive one of four Paul Ehrlich Research Awards. "I couldn't be more proud of Saurabh," Kinzler says. "Mentoring talented young scientists is one of the major benefits of academic science.

Because of the long history of the awards, there are award "grandparents"--faculty whose early award recipients have become faculty members themselves and mentored their own student recipients. Many faculty members have had more than one award recipient come from their groups. For the full 26 years of Young Investigators' Day awards, the combined accomplishments of recipients are truly extraordinary, Talalay says.

Over the years, there's been one constant in recognizing young researchers at the School of Medicine, says Theresa Shapiro, chair of last year's selection committee. "It's a joy and it is humbling to read the applications because the breadth, variety and quality are all very apparent," she says. "These young, talented people are our future."