Risk-taking is foundational to scientific discovery, but securing funding for bold, creative ideas can be difficult—especially for scientists just launching their careers. For more than 35 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has helped meet this need by supporting early-career researchers tackling big questions in biomedical science.
Pew’s Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research bring together a cohort of scientists from different backgrounds and subject matters. These scholars and fellows receive grants to pursue research projects and join a rich network of fellow scientists innovating in their fields. At the core of this research community is the program’s national advisory committee—a group of accomplished scientists who select new grantees and serve as mentors.
Next month, Pew will welcome a new class of scholars and fellows. This interview with committee chairs Craig Mello, Ph.D. (Biomedical scholars), Eva Nogales, Ph.D. (Latin American fellows), and Peter Howley, M.D. (Pew-Stewart scholars), has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Dr. Mello, the biomedical scholars program is the largest of the three, with 22 new scholars selected each year. What makes this program unique?
Craig Mello, Ph.D.: The scientific breadth of the group—and the time spent on community building when we bring these researchers together. The scholars and fellows form bonds that are often the beginnings of lifelong collaborations and friendships.
Q: Dr. Howley, Pew-Stewart scholars focus specifically on cancer. This program, too, is unique. Can you tell us more about it?
Peter Howley, M.D.: Several organizations provide new investigator awards to cancer researchers. But the partnership between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust offers a unique opportunity to Pew-Stewart scholars to be included in the broader Pew community—exposing all the scholars and fellows to new disciplines.
Q. Dr. Nogales, the fellows program supports scientists coming from Latin America to the U.S. for postdoctoral research. What sets this program apart?
Eva Nogales, Ph.D.: This program has a very special meaning and purpose: Pew fellows are given a unique career opportunity and then become a link for life between their institutions and the scientific community at a more global scale. Their hosting labs in the U.S. benefit from the tremendous human capital that the program provides, while the Latin American scientists fulfill their dream of being exposed to some of the best research in the world.
Q: Why do each of these programs matter?
Mello: In addition to the incredible exchange of ideas that spark new discoveries, the scholars program provides mentoring and problem-solving skills for navigating early career paths. Starting a laboratory is incredibly difficult, and it’s not something you ever really train for. Getting the chance to learn from colleagues and advisors is transformative for many scholars. Perhaps most importantly, Pew calls upon its scholars to be good citizens and encourages outreach into our communities.
Howley: I believe that important discoveries are often made at the interface of different disciplines. Being integrated with Pew scholars and fellows exposes cancer researchers to other disciplines that may fertilize new ideas and new breakthroughs in cancer research.
Nogales: Pew believes that science is a global pursuit, and that the U.S. should share expertise and resources with our neighbors in Latin America to promote scientific values and contribute to the scientific and technological progress in the rest of our continent. Pew fellows are having a great impact on the quality of research in Latin America through the unique training opportunities provided to some of the region’s most gifted young scientists.
Q: What do you enjoy most about helping select scientists to participate in these programs?
Nogales: For me, it’s witnessing the enthusiasm and dedication of the advisory board members and sharing with them the joy of contributing to a program that has proved again and again to be such a great investment in the global scientific enterprise.
Mello: The selection process is just a very minor part of the commitment of being an advisor. The real reward comes from mentoring—and sometimes being mentored by—our scholars and fellows as we grow to know each other.
Howley: It’s more than just selecting scientists. By far the best part of this program is engaging with the scholars at these annual meetings. It’s a privilege for the advisors to meet and provide whatever advice we can to such a talented and committed group of new investigators.
Q: What do you see as the legacy of these programs?
Nogales: The research that fellows over the years have done back in their countries of origin, and how they have actively contributed to elevating science in Latin America to the highest levels—extending their own training to new generations of scientists at their institutions, and participating in national and international efforts to support research and technology.
Howley: The legacy of the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program will be the scholars and the impact they will have on cancer research and, more broadly, on biomedical research.
Mello: The program’s legacy is a fabric of interactions, friendships, collaborations, and discoveries stitched together across the United States, through the sister Pew-Stewart and fellows programs, and extending into all of Latin America. These interactions, forged during early career development, mature with time and cultivate a culture of innovation, collaboration, and outreach that simply would not exist if not for this truly unique Pew community.