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Michelson Medical Research Foundation (MMRF) and Human Immunome Project: Perspective from a funder

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Michelson Prizes Bonnie Bender, Director of the Michelson Prizes for the Human Immunome Project

Preface: The deadline is coming up for the 2023 Michelson Prize on June 11, 2023. Learn more in this interview with Bonnier Bender, Director of the Michelson Prizes for the Human Immunome Project.

Tell us more about the history and vision of the Michelson Medical Research Foundation and the Human Immunome Project.

The Michelson Medical Research Foundation (MMRF) and the Human Immunome Project are committed to scientific discovery and believe that deepening our knowledge of the human immune system can transform how we prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. The Michelson Medical Research Foundation supports researchers in bringing their most ambitious and impactful ideas to life through programmatic support, research prizes & grants, and strategic investments. The Human Immunome Project is harnessing the power of the scientific community and technology to decode the immunome and build the first-ever AI model of the human immune system. Collectively, the organizations are working to enable everyone to live longer, healthier lives.

To advance this shared vision, MMRF and the Human Immunome Project have partnered on the Michelson Prizes: Next Generation Grants—annual awards of $150,000 for early career investigators working to drive discovery of vaccines and immunotherapies for major global diseases. The Prizes are designed to fill the funding gap for early-career investigators and act as catalytic investment for high-risk, high-reward scientific research. The Next Generations Grants encourage non-traditional approaches and seek to draw inventive and creative young researchers from a wide range of disciplines.

Dr. Gary Michelson and Alya Michelson first launched the Prizes in 2017, and the Human Immunome Project (formerly the Human Vaccines Project) was a natural partner in this work. Applications are open now through June 11.

Is this award available to applicants globally? Any citizenship or work location restrictions you’ve encountered? 

Yes! In fact, we are proactively expanding our outreach and encourage applications from researchers around the world. Early-career investigators (35 and under), postdoctoral fellows, clinical fellows (including residents and interns), doctoral students, and other researchers currently in training positions are encouraged to apply. Applicants must be employed by or affiliated with an eligible organization, such as an academic institution, biotechnology company, foundation, government or non-governmental organization, or research institute. Further, we are looking to draw investigators from a wide range of disciplines, not just immunology, so researchers in related fields, such as clinical research, biochemistry, molecular biology, protein engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence/machine learning, biophysics, nanotechnology, microbiome, tropical medicine, environmental health, etc. are encouraged to apply.

How many awards are granted each year?

The number of grants varies from year to year, and really depends on the quality of applications. Last year—2022—was particularly competitive, with a large number of really excellent proposals that were short-listed. In the end, the review committee recommended four exceptional proposals for funding.

Is there something that typically sets the top applicants apart from the others? 

Innovation, innovation, and innovation. We are looking for research that challenges current dogma and demonstrates an ability to look beyond convention to deliver maximum impact—that’s the one thing all our winners have in common. Successful applicants also clearly convey the potential of their research and how it could make a lasting impact on vaccine and immunotherapy research.  

Can unsuccessful applicants re-apply for another annual cycle? 

Absolutely—in fact we encourage it. We love to see applicants hone their proposals to become more competitive.

 What advice would you give to prospective applicants?

Think big. I’d encourage applicants to highlight how their research proposal is new and innovative and clearly articulate how it will advance immunology and vaccine-based research. We are also looking at the feasibility of the research, so we advise applicants to demonstrate the capacity to successfully execute upon their proposal.   

To date, are there some notable awardees you’ve funded which you are particularly proud of?  

All of the winners have been exceptional. One of the things that is particularly rewarding is when connections are made among awardees. We’ve already seen one collaboration between Michelson Prize winners, and hopefully we are able to facilitate connections across the alumni network that allows that to happen again.  We also love to hear about how the Michelson Prizes have helped the winners’ careers – and we often hear from winners about how their Michelson Prize paved the way for additional funding, job opportunities and other awards.

Acknowledgment

Thank you to Bonnier Bender for contributing to our funder perspective series.

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