Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Cathryn Delude

March 12th, 2014

(l to r) Theodore Betley, Karine Gibbs, Richard Losick (Chair of MCB), Eric Jacobsen (Chair of CCB), Emily Balskus, and Victoria D’Souza

Karine Gibbs, Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), and Emily Balskus, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB), have each been awarded a 2-year research fellowship from the Merck Foundation.

“Winning the Merck award was a delightful surprise, and I’m honored to be selected to receive it,” said Gibbs, who plans to use the majority of the award to fund two of her graduate students through the remainder of their PhD research, as well as to purchase new software and equipment crucial to the research. “Both students are strong scientists, and this award frees them (and myself) to focus on moving our science forward quickly and efficiently.”

Established in 1987, The George W. Merck Fund supports the work of two Harvard fellows: one from the department of chemistry and chemical biology (CCB), and one from MCB. The goal is for faculty and graduate students of the MCB and CCB departments to come together to engage in dialogue about the connections in their work, and to create a collaborative and dynamic environment.

“As chair of MCB, I am extremely grateful to the Merck Foundation and the members of the family for this extraordinarily generous gift supporting the research of outstanding junior faculty members in MCB and CCB, and for fostering interactions between these two communities,” said Richard Losick, Harvard College Professor and Maria Moors Cabot Professor of Biology. “The Merck Fellowship has been an extremely valuable gift to the previous recipients, Theodore Betley of CCB and Victoria D’Souza in MCB, proving a major boost to their research programs. I am extremely pleased that Emily Balskus and Karine Gibbs are the next Merck Fellow awardees, carrying on the tradition of supporting excellent and innovative science by the Merck Foundation.”

The Merck Fund awards the fellowships two years to allow the recipients to participate in cutting edge research that is not otherwise funded by the federal government.

Reflecting on the impact the award has had on her research, Associate Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology D’Souza said, “The Merck fellowship, which has been the major source of funding in my lab for the last two years, allowed me to make major strides towards achieving the goals, and en route I have discovered novel mechanisms in biology that allow viruses to successfully replicate.”

She stressed that without the data generated during her Merck fellowship, she could not have procured two NIH grants in the last year, a RO1 and a P50. Previous attempts were generally categorized as ‘this project is too ambitious’ by grant reviewers. “The monies from the Merck fellowship were instrumental in allowing me to get over the cost-prohibitive barriers and generate enough preliminary data to prove to the reviewers that the goals were indeed achievable, and that I had started to answer important biological questions,” D’Souza said. Comments from the NIH reviewer panel, including describing the preliminary data connecting structural modeling and engineering to in vivo function as “a non-trivial achievement,” attests to the important role the fellowship has played in her career.

D’Souza and Ted Betley, Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, presented the research funded by their fellowships at Merck Fellowship Forum held on Tuesday, March 11.  D’Souza’s presentation was entitled  “How to be an excellent matchmaker: Lessons by a retroviral chaperone.” Betley’s was “Radical Frontiers in Catalysis.”