Milwaukee foundation supports early-career faculty’s innovative research

May 26, 2016

For their distinct and innovative molecular research, two University of Wisconsin–Madison scientists have earned Shaw Scientist Awards from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

Feyza Engin, assistant professor of biomolecular chemistry, and Srivatsan Raman, assistant professor of biochemistry, will each receive $200,000 in seed funding to advance their work. For more than 30 years, the Shaw Scientist Program has supported early career investigators pursuing promising ideas in biochemistry, biological sciences and cancer research.

“Research is a long-term investment in our quality of life, which is why the Shaw Scientist Program aligns so perfectly with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s mission,” says Ellen Gilligan, the foundation’s president and CEO. “The foundation has been supporting quality of life initiatives in our community for more than 100 years, and together with our donors, we are committed to investing in the future health of our region.”

Engin studies Type 1 diabetes, which affects about 3 million people in the United States and is increasing in incidence at a rate of about 3 to 5 percent annually. The disease results when the body’s immune cells destroy beta cells, which produce insulin.

Engin’s lab examines how dysfunction in the beta cells leads to Type 1 diabetes. By understanding the molecular mechanisms of this dysfunction, she aims to develop more specific, effective preventive and therapeutic strategies against Type 1 diabetes.

“The Shaw Scientist Award has a great value for young investigators to pursue their research, as it provides substantial funding in a more flexible nature than many other funding systems,” says Engin, who earned her doctorate at the Baylor College of Medicine in 2007 and did postdoctoral work at Harvard University.

Raman hopes to unravel the molecular mystery behind allostery, a property that allows proteins to change shape by sensing and responding to signals inside a cell.

Proteins are the workhorses of biology and the function of each protein is encoded in the molecular details of its unique three-dimensional shape. Allosteric proteins are akin to electrical switches, regulating nearly every major biological activity. A deeper understanding of allosteric proteins could lead to targeted molecular therapies for developmental disorders, metabolic disease and cancer caused by mutated allosteric proteins.

“The Shaw Scientist Award funds give me the freedom to pursue a high-risk, high-reward project,” says Raman, who earned his doctorate at the University of Washington in 2009, with postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. “The preliminary results will strengthen my grant application for continued federal funding of this research.”

The Shaw Scientist Awards started in 1982 thanks to a $4.3 million bequest from Dorothy Shaw, widow of James Shaw, a prominent Milwaukee attorney. In addition to $2 million in special grants, Shaw fund has awarded more than $13 million in grants to 71 scientists from UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee during the past three decades. An advisory panel with scientists representing major U.S. research institutions selects the winners.

The awards are administered by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, a family of more than 1,200 individual charitable funds created by donors to serve the local charitable causes of their choice. Started in 1915, the foundation is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the world.