The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization that fosters some of the nation’s most promising young scientists, has recently highlighted one of the University’s own.

Ming Lei, assistant professor of Biological Chemistry, was presented with the Early Career Physician-Scientist award earlier this month. Lei was one of only 50 young scientists chosen from around the country.

“I was the only one selected from Michigan, so it is really a great honor,” Lei said.

In addition to his full salary and benefits, Lei will receive a six-year appointment that includes a $1.5 million budget and funding for equipment and research space.

Lei said he will use the grant money to continue his research on DNA replication and its role in biological functions, like the acceleration of the aging process and the survival of cancer cells.

In particular, Lei is working to determine the structure of molecules that build telomeres, specialized regions that cover the end of DNA and appear to play a key part in both aging and cancer cell replication.

“Studying the role of telomeres is crucial for research related to both cancer and aging,” Lei said.

This award will allow Lei and the other 50 researchers who received it to work on innovative projects without the constraint of worrying about where they will receive funding.

“The primary reason for this award is to help junior faculty do high-risk and potentially high-impact research,” he said.

When scientists at the beginning of their careers run out of start-up funds from their institution, the pressure to acquire monies from federal grant institutes often forces them to write proposals that are safe and reliable, instead of more forward-thinking initiatives.

“The current climate of funding from the government is not very good, so that can place limits on potential research projects that (scientists) can propose,” Lei said. “You have to be really conservative to get funding.”

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is different in that it selects finalists for funding based on a “people not projects” philosophy, allowing the early career scientists to explore various possibilities and even change the entire course of their research.

Lei said he is “so excited to have received this award,” and looks forward to continuing his research on “how telomeres fulfill their two functions, and hopefully discovering their application in cancer prevention.”

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