Scripps Fellows Danielle Grotjahn, PhD, Michael Bollong, PhD, and Michael Erb, PhD.

The Scripps Fellows Program

Extraordinary scientists launching impactful careers

November 07, 2018

Scripps Research enjoys a worldwide reputation for producing innovative, high-quality research. Now, the institute’s Scripps Fellows program is identifying the next generation of scientific leaders and setting them up to launch impactful careers. “We seek out individuals with an outstanding record of graduate research that demonstrates originality in addressing significant questions,” says Ardem Patapoutian, PhD, who, along with Phil Baran, PhD, oversees the program. “It’s a great way for young scientists to jumpstart their careers, develop leadership skills and gain recognition for their work.”

Impactful research

Michael Bollong, PhD, the inaugural Scripps Fellow in March 2017, is a prime example of these ambitious investigators. After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of California, San Diego, he continued his studies at the Skaggs Graduate School of Chemical and Biological Sciences at Scripps Research, earning his doctorate in Chemistry in 2016. The institute’s President and CEO, Peter Schultz, PhD, served as his advisor.

“Due to my successes as a graduate student in chemical biology,” Bollong says, “I was approached by institutional leadership to interview for the first Fellows position.” Bollong’s research focuses on identifying and characterizing small molecules with novel biological activities, ranging from molecules that promote organ repair in the heart and lungs to those that block cancer progression and ameliorate cellular stress.

“This is just the sort of impactful, interdisciplinary science that Scripps Research is known for,” says Schultz. “The Scripps Fellows program draws extremely talented young individuals to our institute, where they enrich and stimulate our investigations, often steering them in novel and productive directions.”

Early independence

Another criterium for a Scripps Fellow candidate, according to Patapoutian, is the ability to set up and manage an independent research group. It’s a talent Scripps Research readily identified in Michael Erb, PhD, who earned his doctorate in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at Harvard University before joining Scripps Research as a Fellow in the Department of Chemistry. Erb says the quick transition from student to leader required some adjustments. “Attracting students and postdoctoral associates, applying successfully for research support and learning to become an effective mentor requires muscles that are infrequently flexed in typical scientific training,” he says. The National Institutes of Health recognized his aptitude, though, awarding him a Director’s Early Independence Award shortly after he joined Scripps Research. Given to junior scientists who bypass the traditional postdoctoral training period and quickly launch independent careers, the award is providing $250,000 toward the direct costs of Erb’s research per year for up to five years. The funds are currently enabling his research into identifying and developing drugs that target the transcriptional pathways supporting cancer cell survival.

“I had a well-defined vision to animate my biological studies with chemical tool discovery and considered that the best path forward was as an independent Fellow,” explains Erb. “We are now working closely with Calibr [the drug discovery division of Scripps Research] to bring world-class discovery chemistry capabilities to bear on therapeutic targets emerging from my group’s work in cancer biology and epigenetics.”

Faculty support

At Scripps Research, the Fellows program provides each Fellow a full salary, as well as funds for two co-workers, for a period of three years. Like institute faculty, the Fellows can secure additional external funding for research and, according to Patapoutian, have been successful in doing so. Scripps Fellows are hosted in labs overseen by senior faculty members and jointly advise graduate students. Erb finds that arrangement beneficial to his career. “Scripps Research is a special place to be a young faculty member,” he says. “The senior colleagues here are extremely supportive and eager mentors.”

Danielle Grotjahn, PhD, the most recent Scripps Fellow, agrees. “I have a vast support network here and I really get the sense that the faculty want to provide all of the resources and guidance necessary to foster my growth as an independent scientist.” She cites an invitation to lecture within two program courses at the institute’s nationally ranked graduate program, an opportunity that will help her develop teaching and mentoring skills. And, she says, institute faculty have mentioned her lab to first-year graduate students, enabling her to recruit a candidate to complete a rotation in her lab. “Everyone here wants me to succeed,” she says.

Originality and significance

Grotjahn also embodies the Scripps Fellow criterium requiring “originality in addressing significant questions.” Since enrolling in the institute’s graduate school, Grotjahn has excelled at forging original investigative pathways. She began her doctoral degree studies performing research in two laboratories: the Integrative Structural and Computational Biology (ISCB) lab and the Molecular Medicine lab, before settling on ISCB. She says the option to customize her education was one of the reasons she chose Scripps Research. Early in 2018, Grotjahn received the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award, in recognition of her outstanding achievement in graduate studies in the biological sciences.

During her graduate work, Grotjahn used cryo-electron tomography to study the structure and function of motor proteins, work that Associate Professor Gabriel Lander, PhD, says “changes the way we view a fundamental component of cell biology. Her hard work sheds new light on decades’ worth of prior research, and profoundly impacts the way that cellular transport pathways are studied going forward.” As a Fellow, Grotjahn continues to utilize these imaging techniques to capture snapshots of dynamic biological processes inside cells.

Tenure track

All three of the current Scripps Fellows plan to pursue careers in academia and Patapoutian predicts the Fellows will emerge as “nationally competitive for faculty positions,” adding that they can and will be considered for faculty positions at Scripps Research.

Grotjahn is currently working with institute faculty and leadership to establish a state-of-the-art cellular imaging center that will provide the technical infrastructure for her research program as well as contribute to the institute’s reputation as a world leader in the fields of structural biology and cryo-electron microscopy.

Erb and his group are advancing the mechanistic understanding of transcriptional regulation in human cancers. He partners with the team at Calibr to bring its discovery chemistry capabilities to bear on the therapeutic targets emerging from his group’s investigations.

Bollong, who recently published a paper in Nature, says that in many ways he’s already living out his career goal of professorship at a top research institute. “The ability to grow a new chemical biology research group from the ground up while taking full advantage of the resources here, which include access to the drug discovery capabilities of Calibr and the ability to obtain mentorship from the preeminent minds in my field, is incredibly compelling. There’s really no other institute like Scripps Research.”

The Scripps Fellows seasonal recruitment period runs from October 16, 2018 through March 15, 2019 and applies to both Scripps Research campuses: La Jolla, California and Jupiter, Florida. To learn more, visit:

For more information, contact See More News