Vijay Sankaran Reflects On the Transformational Impact of the NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Award and Innovator Community

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The offer to start your own laboratory is a crowning achievement as a scientist. Having secured your first independent position, you are already brimming with ideas on where your science could go. But what does it take to translate your vision into reality? The answer lies in your resources: your funding and your connections, which determine the problems you can feasibly pursue.

For Vijay G. Sankaran, MD, PhD, Lodish Family Chair at the Division of Hematology/Oncology at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, his vision involved answering some challenging questions: can we track a cell’s developmental history in living humans? Can genetic variants predispose certain individuals to develop blood cancers? But it wasn’t until he was named a NYSCF – Robertson Investigator in 2018 that he could finally pursue the highly innovative research required to answer them. 

“This award has been catalytic for me in many ways,” noted Dr. Sankaran. “Unlike a lot of the grants I’ve gotten in the past that tend to be focused on specific projects or that have specific goals, the NYSCF – Robertson Investigator award has allowed us to take on challenging projects that feed into the larger vision of the lab and can have a great impact on the field.”

The Sankaran lab has since developed a new method that enables lineage tracing in humans by profiling mitochondrial DNA mutations, helping us understand how stem cells give rise to any tissue in our body and revealing the cellular origins of cancers. Furthermore, his team identified several human genetic loci that increase the risk for accumulating harmful mutations in blood stem cells, in turn leading to myeloproliferative neoplasms (a type of blood cancer). This knowledge is crucial for determining who may be at risk for developing these cancers and finding ways to decrease this risk.

“The NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Award allowed us to carry these projects from pilot stages to the next level,” he said. “It has been really fruitful because we have been able to uncover very exciting biology that we never would have been able to explore otherwise.”  

The NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Awards provide up to $1.5 million in unrestricted funding over 5 years to support early career scientists who have the potential to transform the field of stem cell research or neuroscience. Rather than focusing on specific projects, the Awards support all activities in an Investigator’s lab, allowing them the flexibility to pivot and pursue new directions as they arise. 

“As an early career investigator, it is hard to get funding for risky projects that are a leap from what you have been doing, because grant reviewers typically focus on one’s track record to convince them it is worth the risk,” he continued. “That’s really been the power of these NYSCF Awards — they say we’re going to give you unrestricted funding, so that you can tackle these challenging projects.”

The Power of Community for Careers

One of the most unique benefits of the NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Awards is that successful applicants get to join the NYSCF Innovator Community, a global group of over 200 outstanding early career scientists and postdoctoral fellows based at institutions around the world. This community gathers for what the scientists like to call the ultimate scientific family reunion: one filled with presentations and discussions on the most cutting-edge research in stem cells and neuroscience. Over the course of a week, and virtually amidst a global pandemic, Innovators from different facets of these fields get feedback on their work and share their goals, often leading to new collaborations and projects.

“I’ve never had a prior grant where I felt the same sense of community,” he emphasized. “It is a terrific group of people that fosters scientific excellence, where I’ve felt psychologically safe to take risks and, at the same time, where I’ve been challenged to do the best science possible.”

Dr. Sankaran also stressed how important the NYSCF Innovator Community has been for him in terms of mentorship.

“The graduating class of NYSCF Investigators have served as mentors. I’ve had many great interactions and continue to get advice from them. You get the feeling that these people are watching out for you, but also want to push you to the next level,” he added.

“I think that the only way to become the best we can be in our business is to continuously ask yourself: how do I improve upon this? How do I ask a more important question, and what is that question? It’s been great thinking about science in that way, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the NYSCF community.”

Learn more about the NYSCF – Robertson Investigator awards and apply here. Applications for both the Stem Cell and Neuroscience tracks are due February 16, 2022.

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