Pew-Stewart Scholar Program: Collaboration in Cutting-Edge Cancer Research

  • May 23, 2017
  • by Demetra Aposporos

Pew Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research

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When it comes to supporting early career scientists, the risks bring opportunities for rewards that could one day eradicate devastating diseases.
Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust

A member of the inaugural class of the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research, Arvin Dar is an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai—where he studies chemical biology. (© The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Alexander Stewart was an industrious Midwestern lumber baron who went on to represent Wisconsin in Congress for three terms in the late 1800s. Later, he and his wife, Margaret Gray Stewart, built a Beaux Arts-style home in Washington, D.C., faced in limestone and harboring parquet floors and decorative plaster work. Today it serves as the Embassy of Luxembourg. Decades later, the couple’s two daughters established a trust—named to honor their parents—to further cancer research and treatment of childhood illnesses.

Initially, the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust supported cancer research through competitions for pilot research projects that lasted about six months, at some of the country’s top medical institutions. A later program review resulted in Stewart initiating a different approach—one that supported individual researchers at top institutions over longer periods of time. The trustees then concluded that the new program would be further enhanced if they could bring the Stewart fellows together to share ideas and results, and began exploring what other foundations were doing in this area. 

“In 2012, our former trustee Terry Williams, who has since passed away, reached out to Antony Rosen of Johns Hopkins University for suggestions of foundations that have organized productive gatherings on scientific research,” says Stewart’s executive manager, Lori Jackson. Rosen, an alumnus of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical scholars program, suggested that Stewart contact Pew. Soon after, representatives from the two organizations met and discovered that they shared a similar philosophy.

“In our first meeting, Pew and Stewart agreed that the biggest impact would be to fund top post-doctorate researchers when they’re just starting their own labs,” says Stewart’s executive trustee, William Bierbower. “That’s when these scientists are brimming with ideas to research, and totally energized—but also when they are most in need of funding.” 

That’s because financial support can be difficult for early career scientists to find. “High-risk science isn’t funded by many traditional grant mechanisms. Couple that with the pressure to publish and get tenure, and it’s understandable that scientists don’t have funding for their most creative ideas until later in their career,” says Kara Coleman, director of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. “Only after they’ve proved themselves do they get the opportunity to take more risk.”

At the time of the initial meeting between the Stewart trustees and Pew, the Pew biomedical scholars program had already been operating for more than two decades. The well-known and respected program included an annual gathering that brought all of its scholars together to share expertise and cross-pollinate ideas. In addition, Pew had a rigorous, independent selection process led by an advisory committee of experienced, outstanding scientists. Both aspects resonated with the Stewart trustees. With so many stars aligned, Pew and Stewart agreed to join the Stewart scholars program with the Pew program starting in 2014, adding five scholars dedicated to cancer research to the already diverse mix of research undertaken by the biomedical scholars each year.

This collaborative program, dubbed the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research, currently provides each scholar $240,000 over a four-year time frame, with no strings attached. This flexibility affords scholars tremendous leeway in what they investigate in the laboratory—allowing them to change course, test new avenues, and push boundaries. The approach empowers researchers and promotes scientific innovation at its finest, a goal important to both organizations. 

The selection process is rigorous. “Pew-Stewart scholars are nominated by designated cancer centers or by institutions that have a major effort in cancer research—some 75 institutions,” says Peter Howley of Harvard Medical School, chair of the Pew-Stewart advisory committee. Candidates must have a doctorate in a field related to biomedical sciences or medicine and must also demonstrate outstanding promise as contributors relevant to the field of cancer. Competition is steep: Last year, some 60 researchers were invited to apply for the five slots, with final selections made by Howley and the advisory committee.

Philanthropy has proved to be particularly relevant to scientific research. “The Stewart Trust is a strong believer in the value of unrestricted seed capital in the early stages,” says trustee George Hamilton. “It’s a risky thing to invest in young people—but investing in them, connecting them, and giving them flexibility to experiment and learn brings possibilities for breakthrough results.” When it comes to supporting early career scientists, the risks bring opportunities for rewards that could one day eradicate devastating diseases.

The research being undertaken by Pew-Stewart scholars is innovative. At Stanford University, Adam de la Zerda uses chemically altered particles of gold to seek out and attach to cancer cells, a technique that may someday help surgeons ensure that they have removed every trace of disease. Min Yu’s work at the University of Southern California aims to identify molecular adaptations that allow breast cancer cells to break away from primary tumors and metastasize elsewhere, which could facilitate strategies to block the spread of the disease in individual patients. And at Harvard University, Stephanie Dougan seeks to activate a body’s own immune response to fight pancreatic cancer, using antibodies derived from alpacas. 

From a scholar’s perspective, the program’s benefits can’t be overstated. “Being a Pew-Stewart scholar has introduced me to a wonderful community of young scientists from disparate fields of biology, which really broadens my thinking about cancer research,” says Dougan. Other scholars cite the flexibility of funds as key. “It allows you to open your mind and try crazy things that have never been tried before. It’s incredibly empowering,” says de la Zerda.

Everyone agrees that the annual meeting is one of the program’s greatest strengths. The gathering provides scholars an opportunity to present their work and engage formally and in casual conversations with their peers and the program’s advisers, who have been honored with every major science award. Newly selected scholars are often surprised by the informality of the meeting, which can find them rubbing elbows with Craig Mello—a former Pew scholar who directs the program’s national advisory committee, and one of three program alumni to win the Nobel Prize—and gleaning his insights on stumbling blocks to their research. “The meeting is such a landmark component of the program,” Coleman says. “It affords so many opportunities for mentorship and cross-collaborative thinking.” 

The Pew-Stewart partnership has proved so successful that the Stewart trustees have renewed their commitment for another five years. 

“The Stewart Trust appreciates the great benefit of joining forces with Pew, from strong program administration and scholar selection processes to the unique annual meeting of the cancer and biomedical scholars that encourages research collaborations and sharing of ideas for best results,” Bierbower says. “The Trust is the generous legacy of the Stewart family, and the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research is a highly effective means to achieve the Stewarts’ goal of supporting innovative cancer research.” 

Pew is also grateful for the joint effort. “We are so fortunate in our partnership with the Stewart Trust,” says Pew Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien, who leads Pew’s partnership efforts. “We have found much in common around our shared values and desire to contribute to the front lines of science, by enabling researchers to explore cutting-edge ideas and follow their hunches wherever they may lead them.” 

For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6226 or