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Packard Fellowship Inspires Young Faculty to Pursue Bold Ideas

As a young faculty member just beginning her career at UC San Diego, Kimberly Cooper recalls the anxiety she felt when developing her own research program. There was a constant debate in her head about whether she should play it safe to secure federal research grants, or break out of the mold and pursue big questions in nontraditional ways.

“Receiving the Packard Fellowship Award encouraged me to be bold, creative and pursue the ideas that aren’t necessarily safe,” said Cooper, an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at UC San Diego, who received the award in 2015.

Kimberly Cooper

Cooper is one of 13 UC San Diego faculty members who have received a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a unique award that helps junior faculty jumpstart their research career. In September 2018, the Packard Foundation will celebrate 30 years of supporting young faculty through their Packard Fellowship program. During this time, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has provided $8.6 million in fellowship awards to UC San Diego faculty members who are in the first three years of their career and are conducting research in the natural and physical sciences or engineering.

Over its history, the fellowship has fueled the curiosity of UC San Diego’s young investigators. The award was a game changer for Richard E. Continetti, a distinguished professor in chemistry, who received the fellowship in 1994. The funding helped support the development of a laser that, after two decades, remains the centerpiece of Continetti’s lab today. “The support of foundations like the Packard Foundation, which provide largely unrestricted funds to young faculty, plays an absolutely essential role in the success of the American model for research university faculty today,” said Continetti.

For Jeffrey Severinghaus, UC San Diego professor of geosciences and a 2000 fellow, the award enabled him and his team to travel to the Arctic to measure the radiocarbon content of atmospheric methane using air bubbles from ancient ice, which can help scientists make predictions about future global warming conditions. “The support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded my initial two field campaigns, in which critical preliminary data were collected, and thus made possible two successful subsequent NSF grants for field campaigns in both Greenland and Antarctica,” said Severinghaus.

In addition to supporting her own research at UC San Diego, Emily Troemel explained that the award has also helped her train the next generation of scientists. “Two scientists from my lab have just started their own faculty positions,” said Troemel, an assistant professor in cell and developmental biology. “Thus, the Packard fellowship has helped to triple the number of labs in my field!”

The Packard Foundation was founded in 1964 by David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company, and his wife Lucile Salter Packard, to enable the creative pursuit of science through grants. In 1988, the foundation launched its fellowship program to provide early-career scientists with flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields.

Each year, the Packard Foundation invites 50 universities to nominate two faculty members for consideration. The Fellowships Advisory Panel, a group of 12 internationally-recognized scientists and engineers, evaluates the nominations and recommends investigators for approval by the Packard Foundation Board of Trustees.

For more information about the Packard Foundation’s Fellowship Program in Science and Engineering, visit their website here.