UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences Announces Innovation, Scholar Awards

The UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences has named the first recipients of the UCSF Weill Innovation and Scholar Awards as part of the institute’s goal to support high-risk, high-reward research.

The highly competitive selection process concluded with nine Innovation Awards and six Scholar Awards being granted by the new UC San Francisco institute, made possible by the $185 million gift from Joan and Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill, announced in April.

Sam Hawgood, Joan Weill and Sandy Weill on stage during an April event launching the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences
Sanford I. “Sandy” Weill (right) and Joan Weill (second from right) in April celebrate the launch of the UCSF Weill Institute with UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS, and members of the institute's steering committee. Photo by Elena Graham

The gift, one of the largest ever made to support the neurosciences in the United States, funded several programs, including the UCSF Weill Fellows program to offer crucial financial support to PhD students in UCSF’s Neuroscience Graduate Program and an annual neuroscience symposium that will alternate between Weill Cornell and UCSF.

The first program launched is the UCSF Weill Innovation Fund, which supports high-risk, high-reward research projects aimed at finding new treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases and disorders.

“It’s critical to invest in early-stage research that could reap huge rewards for accelerating progress against brain diseases,” said Stephen L. Hauser, MD, director of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the Robert A. Fishman Distinguished Professor in Neurology. “The Weill Innovation Fund aims to assist our most outstanding scientists so that they can pursue audacious research goals that may be too exploratory to find support from traditional funding sources.”

Each of the nine UCSF Weill Innovation Award recipients received $150,000 – funding that will continue for three years, dependent on milestone attainment each year. The UCSF Weill Scholar Award recipients each received $100,000.

The awards selection process was competitive, with 46 applications for the Innovation Awards and 24 Scholar applications. The recipients were selected by the UCSF Weill Institute Steering Committee, which includes the Weills, UCSF leadership, and three Review Committee Chairs – Ying-Hui Fu, PhD; Lily Jan, PhD; and Kristine Yaffe, MD.

Innovation Awards

  • Robert Edwards, MD, is exploring the dual roles of alpha-synuclein, a protein that both causes Parkinson’s disease and serves an important role in normal brain function.
  • Mark von Zastrow, MD, PhD, Brian Shoichet, PhD, and Nevan Krogan, PhD, are studying a promising new UCSF-discovered alternative to traditional opioids, with the potential to offer pain relief without the risk of addiction. 
  • Peter Walter, PhD, and Susanna Rosi, PhD, hope to understand what happens to the brain when a person loses the ability to remember and and investigate a novel drug that could fight memory loss and enhance cognition.
  • Yin Shen, PhD, and Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, are working to untangle the genetic basis of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and intellectual disability.
  • Amy Gelfand, MD, Steve Cummings, MD, John Boscardin, PhD, and Andrew Charles, MD, are using an innovative remote trial technique to evaluate the efficacy of melatonin for migraine prevention in adolescents.
  • Stephan Sanders, BMBS, PhD, Riley Bove, MD, and Kate Rankin, PhD, aim to develop a state-of-the-art neuropsychiatry clinic to ensure that physicians and scientists have access to relevant, up-to-date, and accurate clinical information.
  • Daniel Lim, MD, PhD, and Geoffrey Manley, MD, PhD, have joined forces to develop a highly specific and sensitive diagnostic test for mild traumatic brain injury (TBI).
  • Michael Wilson, MD, Samuel Pleasure, MD, PhD, and Joseph DeRisi, PhD, are using state-of-the-art research tools to discover novel causes of antibody-mediated neurological diseases.
  • Lisa Gunaydin, PhD, is working to identify cellular and circuit biomarkers for susceptibility to anxiety disorders.

Scholar Awards

  • Raquel C. Gardner, MD, is using a novel analytic approach to reinvent how TBI’s impact on individual patients is measured and analyzed, in order to help physicians better classify their patients’ injuries and predict how they will recover.
  • Mazen Kheirbek, PhD, is using new technologies to identify novel cell types within the hippocampus that may impact mood and anxiety-related behavior, in order to develop novel targets for therapeutics.
  • Alexandra Nelson, MD, PhD, hopes to understand the role of a group of cells in the brain (collectively known as striosomes) in Parkinson’s disease, a vital step toward eventual therapeutic manipulation of these cells.
  • Michael Oldham, PhD, is utilizing gene expression data to develop mathematical models that predict the cell types most likely to populate each area of the human brain.
  • Louis Ptáček, MD, is working to illuminate the normal function of a newly discovered gene in patients with paroxysmal non-kinesigenic dyskinesia, a rare episodic movement disorder.
  • Maggie Waung, MD, is investigating brainstem circuits that are activated during headache to understand how these circuits may contribute to the development of chronic migraine or medication overuse in headache patients.

The full project description of each of the winners is available on the Research Development Office website »