How a Scholarship Encourages "Risky" Research

A conversation with Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Lei Ding, PhD

After many years of ever-tightening NIH budgets, it’s harder than ever for early-career scientists to secure the funds and recognition to jumpstart their careers. So some honors can go a long way in helping to advance a researcher’s work.

Lei Ding, PhD, assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine and of microbiology and immunology, was recently named a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, an honor that both recognizes and supports his promising work.

Each year, the awards recognize seven early-career biomedical scientists who are making important contributions to their field. Rita Allen Foundation Scholars have gone on to win Nobel prizes, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

In this interview, Dr. Ding discusses his work, as well as what the Rita Allen Foundation Scholarship means for his career.

Can you describe your work and its importance? 

We work on the blood-forming stem cells that generate all of the body’s blood and immune cells throughout our life.

These cells provide the basis for bone marrow transplantation to treat various blood and immune diseases, such as leukemia. Although blood-forming stem-cell transplantation is arguably the most widely used stem cell-based therapy, we are often faced with limitations.

For example, not having enough stem cells is one of the major problems preventing us from using these cells more safely and efficiently. We are learning how our body regulates the generation and maintenance of these stem cells and hope to apply what we learn to better use these cells in clinics.

You have said that this scholarship helps you pursue “riskier” work. What is risky about this project?

We will use the funding from the Rita Allen Foundation to study how blood-forming stem cells multiply. This is an area filled with questions of potentially high impact on how we use these cells for clinical benefits.

These questions have never been addressed before, so they are “riskier” experimentally, compared with other questions in the field, which we have some ideas about. But riskier also means greater opportunities to make breakthroughs.

What is interesting to you about what you are studying? 

Tissue stem cells are amazing in that they can make all of the cells in our body. They also have the ability to renew themselves so that we have life-long tissue repair and regenerative potential. We don’t really understand how stem cells generate themselves. This interesting process intrigues me, as well as many others in the field.

What does funding at this stage of your career mean for you long term?

Running a research lab requires a lot of resources. Funding is especially important for early-stage investigators, as they are building a research program from scratch. In the current rough funding climate, many investigators have to spend more time on finding research money than focusing on experiments. I am really fortunate to receive the funding from the Rita Allen Foundation. It will definitely give me a jump-start for my long-term career. With less pressure on finding research money and more time to focus on the research itself, I know that funding at this stage of my career will affect my research in a very positive way.

What advice would you give to other early-career researchers or those looking to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences?

Being an early-career investigator, I am humbled to be asked to give advice. But I can share a few things that have been working for me as a scientist: staying curious about how things work, identifying and focusing on the fundamental questions in the field, and ambitiously pursuing the answers to those questions. It is also important to think critically, organize research logically and execute it efficiently, and pursue your interest persistently.