In early November, two School of Medicine scientists each received a Presidential Early Career Award, the highest honor that a beginning researcher can receive in the United States.
The scientists, Sven-Eric Jordt, Ph.D., assistant professor of pharmacology, and Susan Kaech, Ph.D., assistant professor of immunobiology, were among 58 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which honor outstanding researchers who are beginning their independent research careers. All were honored at a White House ceremony on November 1.
Jordt and Kaech were part of a group of 12 PECASE winners sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“The National Institutes of Health is extraordinarily proud of supporting 12 PECASE winners who have, early in their research careers, shown exceptional potential for scientific leadership during the 21st century—the essence of this award,” said NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D. “We look forward to continued innovation from these outstanding investigators as they push the frontiers of medical research during this pivotal time for scientific discovery.”
Jordt was honored for conducting ethics seminars for incoming students, and for his research on TRP (pronounced “trip”) channels, molecular sensors that mediate sensations of heat, cold and pain. The TRP receptors Jordt studies respond to both temperature changes and natural plant products. One responds both to high temperatures and to capsaicin, the chemical that gives chile peppers their “heat”, another responds to cool temperatures and to menthol, which explains the “cool” sensation caused by some breath mints.
Using capsaicin, mustard oil, menthol and other compounds as chemical probes, Jordt’s research focuses on the role of TRP channels in hypersensitivity to pain and in the chronic inflammation seen in asthma, allergy, chronic cough and dermatitis.
Kaech was selected for mentoring undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows, and for her study of the development of memory T cells, the defensive immune system cells created after vaccination or infection.
When we contract an infection, “naïve” cells known as CD8 cells encounter the invading pathogen and then quickly differentiate into specialized T cells that kill cells that have been infected. When the infection has cleared, most of these newly created T cells die off, but some remain in the body as “memory cells” that provide long-term immune protection, and this same phenomenon is responsible for the effectiveness of vaccines.
Kaech aims to improve vaccines by determining what crucial factors make memory cells and keep them alive throughout our lifetime.
The PECASE winners, who receive five years of support for their work, are selected by the White House Office of Science and Technology based on two criteria: innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education or community outreach.
The honored scientists are nominated by the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The PECASE were established in 1996 by the National Science and Technology Council. With three winners this year—Dean S. Karlan, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics at Yale, also won an award—Yale garnered more PECASE awards than any other institution.