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UCI achieves rare trifecta: 3 scientists receive New Innovator Awards

Irvine, Calif., Sept. 30, 2013 UC Irvine scientists Aaron Esser-Kahn, Sunil Gandhi and Ali Mortazavi have been named recipients of the prestigious 2013 National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Awards.

The highly selective award program supports projects by early-career researchers that show potential to transform scientific fields and accelerate the translation of research into new ways to improve human health.

Esser-Kahn, Gandhi and Mortazavi will each receive $2.3 million for five years to fund their projects. They are among 41 investigators to receive the award; UC Irvine joins Stanford University, UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley as the only institutions to have three honorees.

"It's rare that an institution is home to more than one New Innovator recipient in one year, and that UC Irvine has three is a testament to the robust environment that encourages our early-career research faculty members," said John Hemminger, vice chancellor of research. "Aaron, Sunil and Ali are exceptional scientists, and we are proud that the NIH, in this age of sequestration, has chosen to support their visionary work."

Esser-Kahn is an assistant professor of chemistry in the School of Physical Sciences. The New Innovator Award will boost his efforts to understand vaccine effectiveness by looking at the structure of its molecular components. By uncovering this "molecular code," Esser-Kahn believes this research can aid in the development of safer, more targeted vaccines.

Gandhi is an assistant professor of neurobiology & behavior in the School of Biological Sciences. With the award, he will study whether transplanting a type of nerve cell that dampens activity can rewire neural pathways in the adult brain, a process called neuroplasticity. Findings could help repair damage caused by traumatic brain injury, stroke or neurodegenerative disease. In addition, methods for reactivating neuroplasticity might eventually be used to enhance behavioral therapies for psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Earlier this year, Gandhi was named one of 15 Searle Scholars, an award which recognize innovative biomedical and chemistry research by young faculty.

Mortazavi is an assistant professor of developmental & cell biology in the School of Biological Sciences. His project will explore how DNA codes the precise activities of genes involved with development. His lab will create methods to measure how this gene expression is affected by changes in the organization of DNA in embryonic stem cells as they differentiate into neurons and cardiac muscle cells. Mortazavi believes his research will identify fundamental principles of gene regulation as well as the specific DNA elements critical to stem cell differentiation.

The New Innovator Award highlights two important goals of the NIH by stimulating highly original research and supporting promising new investigators. In 2013, under its High Risk-High Reward program, the NIH is awarding 12 Pioneer Awards, 41 New Innovator Awards, 10 Transformative Research Awards and 15 Early Independence Awards. The total funding, which represents contributions from the NIH Common Fund and multiple NIH institutes and centers, is approximately $123 million.


Contact: Cathy Lawhon
University of California - Irvine

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