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Two Scripps Research Institute Scientists Win Prestigious Presidential Early Career Awards

Erica Ollmann Saphire and Marisa Roberto to Be Honored at the White House

Images: Erica Ollmann Saphire, Marisa Roberto. Photos by Michael Balderas Photography.

LA JOLLA, CA, July 10, 2009—Two scientists from The Scripps Research Institute—Associate Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., and Associate Professor Marisa Roberto, Ph.D.—have been selected to receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers.

"These extraordinarily gifted young scientists and engineers represent the best in our country," said President Barack Obama of the winners nationwide.  "With their talent, creativity, and dedication, I am confident that they will lead their fields in new breakthroughs and discoveries and help us use science and technology to lift up our nation and our world."

"We are very proud of Erica and Marisa's contributions to their fields," said Scripps Research President Richard A. Lerner, M.D., "and we look forward to their next accomplishments."

The Presidential Early Career Awards are intended to recognize and nurture some of the finest scientists and engineers who, while early in their research careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge during the 21st century.

A number of federal departments and agencies join together annually to nominate the award winners. The federal agencies involved are: National Science Foundation, National Science and Technology Council, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services (National Institutes of Health), Transportation, and Veterans Affairs. The awards, established by President Clinton in February 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. The award winners are selected based on two criteria: innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education, or community outreach.

Ollmann Saphire, who is a member of the Scripps Research Department of Immunology and Microbial Sciences and The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology, is a 2000 graduate of the Scripps Research Ph.D. program, the Kellogg School of Science and Technology. She received her undergraduate degree from Rice University. Earlier this year, Ollmann Saphire was awarded the prestigious Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease award, which supports the career of a researcher who is working on understanding the interactions between human host and infectious agent.

In her research program, Ollmann Saphire combines x-ray crystallography, biochemistry, and immunology to analyze proteins that play key roles in the pathogenesis of Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers; structures of these proteins provide templates for vaccine design and enable rapid responses to newly emerging forms of the viruses. Last year, Ollmann Saphire and colleagues determined the structure of a critical protein from the Ebola virus, which, though rare, is one of the deadliest viruses on the planet killing between 50 and 90 percent of those infected (see Nature 454, 177-182, July 10 2008)).

Roberto, a member of the Scripps Research Committee on The Neurobiology of Addictive Disorders, Pearson Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, and the Harold L. Dorris Neurological Research Institute, received both her B.A. (1996), and Ph.D. (2001) from the University of Pisa, Italy. She joined Scripps Research in 2001. In 2005, Roberto received the Young Investigator Award from the Research Society on Alcoholism.

In her research program, Roberto uses in vitro electrophysiological techniques to understand the effects of drugs of abuse and neuropeptides on neuronal function and synaptic transmission. Last year, Roberto and colleagues published a study providing evidence that the drug gabapentin affects certain components of the alcohol addiction cycle in the brain, supporting the idea that the medication, which is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating seizures and pain, also holds potential for the treatment of alcohol dependence (see The Journal of Neuroscience, 28(22), 5762-5771, May 28, 2008).

As Presidential Early Career Award honorees, Ollmann Saphire and Roberto will receive up to a five-year research grant to further their scientific investigations. The ceremony conferring the award will take place at the White House in the fall.

About The Scripps Research Institute
The Scripps Research Institute is one of the world's largest independent, non-profit biomedical research organizations, at the forefront of basic biomedical science that seeks to comprehend the most fundamental processes of life. Scripps Research is internationally recognized for its discoveries in immunology, molecular and cellular biology, chemistry, neurosciences, autoimmune, cardiovascular, and infectious diseases, and synthetic vaccine development. Established in its current configuration in 1961, it employs approximately 3,000 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, scientific and other technicians, doctoral degree graduate students, and administrative and technical support personnel. Scripps Research is headquartered in La Jolla, California with a second campus located in Jupiter, Florida. Research at Scripps Florida focuses on basic biomedical science, drug discovery, and technology development. 


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