Rising Faculty Receive FEST Funding for Innovative Research

May 18, 2009 — Advanced tools to develop new antimicrobial drugs with enhanced resistance profiles. A new technique for measuring a class of enzymes implicated in cancer. A better understanding of the intricacies of sorting chromosomes during cell division. A novel switching material that could significantly lower power consumption in electronic circuits.

These are the ambitious research goals of the 2009 Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology Distinguished Young Investigator Grant winners at the University of Virginia.

"This year's four winners exemplify the extraordinary quality of our junior faculty in the sciences and engineering and their great potential for leadership here in the coming years," said Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research.

The 2009-10 FEST Distinguished Young Investigators are:

  • Daniel Foltz, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics
  • Kevin Janes, Department of Biomedical Engineering
  • Jiwei Lu, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
  • Michael Shirts, Department of Chemical Engineering.

The FEST program supports highly innovative research projects in the sciences, engineering and medicine with $50,000 in seed funding. The idea is to finance exploratory projects with big potential so that young investigators can gain preliminary data to bolster their external grant applications.

The FEST application process is highly competitive. This year there were 29 applicants. The review committee evaluates proposals on criteria such as originality and the likelihood of attracting external recognition.

"The applications received for this year's FEST awards were truly breathtaking," said review committee member Marcia McDuffie, professor of microbiology. "They demonstrate the strength and vibrancy of the scientific community here at U.Va., even in very difficult times. All who participated in the competition deserve congratulations for their work and their vision. Our senior faculty deserve high praise for creating an environment which has attracted these young scientists and in which they can flourish."

Reviewer Joe Campbell, Lucien Carr III Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, concurred with McDuffie. "Even the 'lowest-ranked' proposals were very good and I am certain that their PIs will be successful in obtaining outside funding for those projects," Campbell said. "The four that were selected were, of course, superb in all areas. The technical quality of the proposed work was judged by the committee as being first rate. It was felt that if the PIs are successful in achieving their goals, the international technical community will view their accomplishments as notable breakthroughs."

The FEST Distinguished Young Investigator Grant Program was initiated by the Office of the Vice President for Research in 2004 and accepts proposals on an annual basis. Past FEST awardees have gone on to great success: five have received National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development awards, one has received a DARPA Young Faculty Award, and one has received a Packard Fellowship. In addition, many have secured substantial external funding, including grants from the NSF, NIH, NASA and the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation.