The Burroughs Wellcome Fund (a Next Wave sponsor) has always supported biomedical research it considers risky or undervalued. We recognized early on that some of the most exciting research is happening at the interface between biology and physical/computational science. With advances in genomics, quantitative structural biology, and the modeling of complex systems, there has never been more fertile ground for bringing expertise in the fields of applied mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering to bear on biological problems.
Recognizing that cross-trained scientists will play an increasingly vital role in furthering biomedical science, the fund developed its Career Awards at the Scientific Interface (CASI) in 2001 and named its first group of awardees in 2002. CASI's purpose is to foster the early career development of researchers with backgrounds in the physical/computational sciences who are working on biological questions and who intend to pursue a career in academic research. Through its CASI program, the fund hopes to jump-start the careers of these talented, cross-trained researchers.
CASI funding--$500,000 over 5 years to bridge advanced postdoctoral training and the first 3 years of a faculty appointment--is flexible and portable. Part of the funding goes for the award recipient's salary, and the remainder can be used to cover research expenses such as supplies, equipment, travel to scientific meetings, and laboratory personnel--at the discretion of the award recipient. If you were to receive CASI funding, you could transfer any lab equipment you purchased with CASI funds from the institution where you were doing your postdoctoral work to the institution where you received a faculty appointment.
Eligibility and Procedures
To be eligible to apply for CASI funding, you must have a Ph.D. in mathematics, physics, chemistry (physical, theoretical, or computational), computer science, statistics, or engineering and have completed at least six but no more than 48 months of postdoctoral training. You are not eligible if you hold or have accepted a faculty position. If you are not a citizen of the United States or Canada, you must provide documentation of your H1B visa, granted no earlier than 1 January 2002, and you must be nominated by an accredited, degree-granting institution in the United States or Canada.
Your research proposal can address questions in any area of biomedical science, and the program expects you to draw from your training in one of the above-mentioned sciences to propose innovative approaches to answer important biological questions. Some examples could include doing physical measurements of biological phenomena, developing computer simulations of complex processes in physiological systems, creating mathematical models of self-organizing behavior, building probabilistic tools for medical diagnosis, developing novel imaging tools or biosensors, applying nanotechnology to manipulate cellular systems, predicting cellular responses to topological clues and mechanical forces, and developing a new conceptual understanding of the complexity of living organisms. The program especially encourages proposals that include experimental validation of theoretical models and collaboration with other researchers. You can include up to two collaborators in your research proposal.
After the deadline (3 May 2004 for next year's awards), the program officer, Nancy Sung, and program associate, Debi Vought, carefully review the research proposals and forward them to an advisory committee comprising distinguished scientists from across the country and from disciplines including mathematics. After reviewing the proposals, the advisory committee selects approximately 16 candidates who will be notified by the end of August that they have been selected for interviews, which usually take place in early October at the fund's offices in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. After the interview process is completed, the committee makes its selections and the fund notifies award recipients by early November. The upcoming award period begins in January 2005.
Two Examples of Success
Of the 15 young scientists who've received awards in 2002 and 2003, 10 have already made the transition to tenure-track positions at top universities. Adrienne Fairhall, a 2003 CASI recipient, is one of those 10: She has been appointed assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington, Seattle. A physicist by training, Fairhall used her postdoctoral study at Princeton University's molecular biology department to investigate adaptation and neural coding in the retina. Her objective, she says, is to carry out a research program in theoretical approaches to neuroscience both by collaborating with experimental labs and through developing theoretical models and data analysis methods to probe neural function.
Lindsay Cowell, a biomathematician and 2003 CASI recipient, did her postdoctoral research at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in immunology, developing a statistical model that could be applied to finding DNA motifs and furthering our understanding of how the complex immune system in humans and other vertebrates can recognize and target an array of viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. Cowell says that opportunities to apply mathematics and statistics in immunology go beyond the protein-DNA interactions she investigated as a postdoc. She says her objective is to build an immunology research group comprising both scientists with experimental training and mathematicians who can be trained to become computational immunologists. In fall 2003, Cowell moved into her new position as assistant professor in Duke's biostatistics and bioinformatics department.
For its 2005 CASI program, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund expects to make up to 10 awards. Says Sung, "We encourage physical and computational scientists to apply for this award, because we believe that a cross-disciplinary approach to biomedical research is critical and ultimately will fast-forward our ability to improve human health and well-being."
Candidates interested in applying for the CASI program can find details and application forms on the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Web site: http://www.bwfund.org . Look for the information under the Interfaces in Science  grant program area.