‘Science Driven by Passion’: 2018 Michelson Prize Winners on How the Award Advanced Their High-Risk/High-Reward Research

Jan 20, 2022 | Michelson Medical Research Foundation, Michelson Prizes, News, Stories

As the Michelson Medical Research Foundation and the Human Vaccines Project gear up to announce the latest winners of the 2021 Michelson Prizes on January 25, the 2018 winners discuss how receiving the prize has been instrumental in advancing their groundbreaking research at the dawn of their careers.

2018 Michelson Prizes grant winners

From left to right: Ian Gust, A.O., M.D. (Human Vaccine Project Board Emeritus), Dr. Ansuman Satpathy (Michelson Prizes recipient), Dr. Laura Mackay (Michelson Prizes recipient), Dr. Gary Michelson (Founder, Michelson Philanthropies), Dr. Wayne Koff (Founding President & CEO, Human Vaccine Project), Dr. Steve Kay (Director, USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience), and Dr. Patricia Illing (Michelson Prizes recipient).


By Justin Chapman

From a postdoc to a researcher with his own lab. A junior PI now collaborating with a fellow prize winner on a forthcoming study. A researcher who, as she mentors colleagues, was named a group leader at a biomedical institute.

They were the inaugural winners of the Michelson Prizes: Next Generation grants, awarded by the Michelson Medical Research Foundation (MMRF) and the Human Immunome Project—$150,000 given annually to investigators 35 or younger.

When MMRF launched the Michelson Prizes in 2018, four short years ago, it was a different time, underscoring the visionary nature of the prizes. That was the first year the career-altering Michelson Prizes were awarded to early-career researchers advancing the study of human immunology, vaccine discovery, and immunotherapy, topics of much interest now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previous winners of the prize said the funds and prestige from receiving the prize have been instrumental in advancing their groundbreaking research at the dawn of their careers.

Now Michelson Philanthropies, MMRF, and the Human Vaccines Project are gearing up to announce the new winners of the Michelson Prizes for 2021 on January 25, 2022.

Read about the 2018 winners below, Dr. Ansuman Satpathy, Dr. Laura Mackay, and Dr. Patricia Illing, who share their discoveries and their career trajectories and also offer advice to investigators thinking about applying. The prize allowed them to pursue projects they were passionate about, helped grow their teams, and gave them needed independence.

Read about the 2019 prize winners here, and check back in the coming days for stories about the 2020 Michelson Prizes winners.

Dr. Ansuman Satpathy

Dr. Satpathy received the Michelson Prize for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research in 2018 for: “Epigenomic Mechanisms of Vaccine-Induced Immunity.”

Dr. Satpathy is focused on combining disciplines of genomics and human immunology. His research identifies key gene regulatory mechanisms that trigger protective immunity following vaccination using novel epigenomic sequencing technologies applied directly to patient samples. The Prize allowed him to greatly accelerate his work, advancing both 3D and single-cell epigenetic technologies to human immunology and vaccine research.

“I’m using high throughput genomic and other technologies to study fundamental aspects of how the immune response works, and in particular, how the immune response works to fight cancer in patients,” Dr. Satpathy said. “We try to understand the building blocks of the immune system fighting cancer so that we can engineer, in a productive way, patients to fight cancer.”

He explained that there were two parts of what he proposed to do: one was to build these technologies to understand the immune response at a cell by cell level/resolution, and then to apply it to a couple of different applications, in particular understanding vaccine responses to viral infections, and the second was to understand cancer immunotherapies and why certain patients respond to vaccines or cancer immunotherapies and other patients do not.

He started his lab in 2019, and it has grown to now include 25 postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, technicians, and staff scientists. He also started two companies: Immunai, which now employs about 150 people, and another one that is still in stealth mode. He said that his lab and companies came out of the work that he was doing when he was a postdoc, which was in turn really driven forward by the Michelson Prize.

“What we’re doing now in the lab is largely trying to accomplish that vision of what we set out to do three years ago: we’re trying to develop novel technologies, novel ways of looking at the immune system at a really, really high resolution to understand the molecular switches of how an immune cell works well, when it’s working well, and what’s happening in cases when it’s not working well, and then using things like genetic engineering or other forms of engineering to flip those switches in the ways that we think will make them work better.”

He said winning the Michelson Prize allowed him to “take really ambitious shots on goal,” to pursue very high-risk/high-reward science.

“You should always let your science be driven by what you’re most passionate about. That will take you in good directions in general.”

—Dr. Ansuman Satpathy

“Michelson Philanthropies and the Human Immunome Project have been a really good support network of exciting and excellent scientists doing complementary work,” he said. “They also provided funding for me to do the things I was most excited about at an early time in my career when I was just getting started. So having that funding was really critical.”

The other benefit of the prize, he added, is the recognition that comes with it. That prestige helped to bring more resources and recognition to his lab and the work that they’re doing. He happened to be transitioning from his postdoc to a faculty position at the time that he got the award, and while he was on the job market, a hiring committee saw Michelson’s ad in Science which featured the three winners of the prize that year, including Dr. Satpathy.

“That’s a nice thing to have happen when you’re on the job market,” he said.

He advised future early-career researchers who are considering applying for the Michelson Prize to work on the ideas that excite them and that they really want to find the answers for, rather than doing things that other people say they should do.

“What leads to the best outcome is just being driven by your own curiosity to understand something or to develop something that will help humans,” he said. “When I applied for the Michelson Prize, I just put forward an ambitious idea that I thought was cool. I never thought that anybody would think that that was something they would fund. You should always let your science be driven by what you’re most passionate about. That will take you in good directions in general.”

He added that moving from a postdoctoral fellowship to a faculty position is where there is a lot of attrition of really promising scientists, and that the Michelson Prize is filling an important gap in a way that allows young scientists to go after their most ambitious goals.

The 2022 application opens April 1.

Learn more about Dr. Satpathy’s project here and his work here.

Dr. Laura Mackay

Dr. Mackay received the Michelson Prize for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research in 2018 for: “Targeting Tissue-Resident Immune Cells for Enhanced Immune Protection.”

Dr. Mackay is studying the recently described subset of immune cells called tissue resident memory T cells, which combat various viral infections and cancer. The research that was funded by the Prize examines immune responses by tissue resident memory T cells to harness their protective functions to improve vaccines and immunotherapies.

“The dogma has really changed around how we think T cells protect against infection and cancer,” she said. “The view is now that the tissue T cells are fundamentally different to those in the circulation that were being used to develop T cell vaccines. And so understanding the tissue T cells and how they can be harnessed and what genes regulate them and regulate that functionality and between different sites, that’s what my project for the prize aimed to do. And also to see how those T cells will synergize with immune checkpoint blockade against various cancers.”

She said that winning the Michelson Prize definitely helped further her research. She has since been able to grow her lab that she started in 2016.

“The grant funding system in Australia often only funds safe science, rather than backing the basic discovery biology, which is what my group loves to do,” she said. “I was a junior PI, and getting international funding to do blue-sky research was just absolutely perfect at that time because when you’re a young PI, you don’t necessarily have the track record to get funding. It’s been a real snowball effect of getting international funding, which led to more funding, and consequently I was able to grow my team and accelerate my trajectory to full professor relatively quickly.”

“Getting international funding to do blue-sky research was just absolutely perfect at that time. It’s been a real snowball effect and consequently I was able to grow my team and accelerate my trajectory to full professor relatively quickly.”

—Dr. Laura Mackay

Visibility was another huge benefit of the prize, she added. It’s very rare that an Australian researcher can apply for U.S. funding, so being able to compete globally was a big deal.

She is still working in this space, as “there’s still a lot more to do. There has been an absolute exponential increase in knowledge from say, 10 years ago, when we didn’t know these cells existed. Now, we know so much about them, how they work in different settings and in different tissues. And I think the importance of these cells is now well appreciated by the scientific community.”

Dr. Mackay also began a collaboration with Dr. Satpathy after they won the prize in the same year. They’re getting ready to submit their first paper together and they’re working on other projects as well.

“Some young scientists may be hesitant to apply, wondering if they’re ready yet or good enough,” she said about researchers who are thinking of applying for the Michelson Prize. “My advice is to always apply. Even the application process is really great because it can identify strengths and weaknesses for next time. Just to bite the bullet and roll the dice. I used to be very apprehensive to apply for certain things that I assumed I just wouldn’t get, whereas now I’m just happy to have a go. If anyone is thinking about it, or is on the fence about it, just do it.”

The 2022 application opens April 1.

Learn more about Dr. Mackay’s project here and her work here.

Dr. Patricia Illing

Dr. Illing received the Michelson Prize for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research in 2018 for: “Spliced Peptides: Novel Candidates for Effective Influenza Immunity.”

Dr. Illing was investigating the role of spliced peptides during influenza infection. This work involves an innovative new approach for identifying influenza-specific peptide antigens with implications for the development of vaccines against both seasonal and pandemic influenza strains. The prize money provided greater resources to expand understanding of how a viral antigen is recognized by the human immune system.

Her doctoral research (2009-2013) focused on adverse drug reactions mediated by T cells. Since then her work at Monash University has diversified to look at not only T cells mediating unwanted responses, but also at T cells doing the right thing during infectious disease, primarily influenza.

“Over the last eight years, my research has evolved a lot more to be focused on this process of antigen presentation, so how peptides are generated from invading viruses and get presented at the cell surface and what the diversity of these peptides are,” she said. “The Michelson Prize came into this with regards to a certain subset of peptides, which are known as post-translationally spliced peptides. That work is still ongoing.”

She said the Michelson Prize enabled her to build a small team and employ a research assistant who has since started a Ph.D., as well as recruit a few students to work on the influenza project and a drug hypersensitivity project. Last year, she was appointed as a group leader within the Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University.

“We’re looking for different targets that could be utilized to help us fight influenza,” she said. “Influenza vaccines generate predominantly antibody-based immunity against the surface proteins of the virus that are very changeable between different viral strains. Rather than the antibody responses, we’re interested in the T cell response, which can target peptides that are generated in infected cells after proteins from the virus have broken down. Because that breakdown process can access all of the proteins of the virus, you can actually get peptides from much more conserved proteins that then make their way out to the cell surface and act as universal targets for vaccination against all strains of influenza.”

“If you’ve got ideas and passion, then give it a shot. That always comes through. Don’t doubt yourself.

—Dr. Patricia Illing

Her project for the Michelson Prize was about looking at some of the slightly strange things that can happen during peptide processing, such as a peptide splicing event, where different parts of the virus can potentially get recombined.

“There has been a lot of attention on this in regards to cancer, and there’s still a lot of work going on in this field as to how much this is actually occurring,” she said. “We’ve still got some work ongoing to try and nail down whether this is something that is important in influenza infection. We’re not there yet. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic it’s taken us a while longer than we’d hoped. I’m hoping that over the next six months, we’ll get a few more answers. But the Michelson Prize really helped start the investigation.”

As for early-career researchers who are thinking about applying for the Michelson Prize, Dr. Illing said you’ve got to be in it to win it.

“If you’ve got ideas and passion, then give it a shot,” she said. “That always comes through. Don’t doubt yourself. In Australia, especially among younger researchers, we’re so used to looking at just a few funding pools, so taking the opportunity to look outside was really nice. One of the things that I really liked is that connection. I get the emails that are coming through from the Human Vaccines Project with highlights on COVID research and the vaccine research that’s going on.”

The 2022 application opens April 1.

Learn more about Dr. Illing’s project here and her work here.

Stay tuned for an announcement about the 2021 Michelson Prize award winners on January 25! Learn more about the Michelson Prizes here.