An Investment in Talent: Pew-Supported Fellows, Scholars Work to Benefit the World

  • May 23, 2017
  • by Carol Kaufmann

Pew’s support for scholars, scientists, and artists to study and create is paying dividends that benefit the world.

Pew’s support early in my career—when creative research ideas are not always easy for traditional funders to embrace—helped changed how I viewed my role as a scientist and a leader and continue to inform my life and work today. Antony Rosen, vice dean for research, John Hopkins University School of Medicine (Pew Scholar, 1995)

Pew Biomedical Scholars

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More than 600 young researchers dedicated to improving public health have been named Pew biomedical scholars—and three have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Marine Fellows

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156 marine fellows have been named from 37 countries—a sign not only of the breadth of talent but also that the oceans know no boundaries and that their care belongs to all nations.

Over the past three decades, The Pew Charitable Trusts has encouraged—and supported—promising young biomedical scholars, marine scientists, and Philadelphia artists to come up with thoughtful solutions to global problems and to create new ways of seeing the world. 

While most of Pew’s work directly focuses on improving public policy, informing the public, and invigorating civic life, the institution also recognizes that often the best approach to meeting societal challenges is to invest in talented individuals and give them the resources to experiment and succeed in their fields.

The first foray into nurturing talent began more than 30 years ago with the creation of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences. The program awards grants to early-career scientists, encouraging them to take on research that they wouldn’t have the time, financial support, or perhaps even the courage to attempt otherwise. More than 600 young researchers dedicated to improving public health have been named Pew biomedical scholars—and three have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Some 25 years ago, Pew turned its attention to the seas and, recognizing the central role the oceans play in the health of the planet, established the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation. Since then, 156 marine fellows have been named from 37 countries—a sign not only of the breadth of talent but also that the oceans know no boundaries and that their care belongs to all nations. These scientists have made new discoveries, and their work has helped conserve the planet—as seen most recently with their contributions that helped establish the world’s largest marine protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea last year.

Also more than two decades ago, Pew turned to the creative community in its hometown of Philadelphia and saw the need to nurture emerging artists. Since the creation of the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, nearly 325 artists, musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, and other creators have been able to focus on their craft and professional development, allowing them new opportunities to create life-transforming works of art. And many fellows have gone on to receive accolades around the globe, including two Pulitzer Prizes for music.

More than just financial support, these programs are an invitation to become part of a community of like-minded souls. The networks of scientists, marine experts, and artists have produced unexpected collaborations and lasting relationships that continue to foster new talent, discover new solutions, and help the world to be a better place. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts supports researchers, scientists, and artists

Carol Greider, who was selected a Pew scholar in 1990, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for her work on telomeres. (© Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Taking Scholarly Risks

The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences

Perhaps what makes the biomedical scholars program different than other fellowships is that it gives talented young scientists confidence to pursue ideas at the right time in their careers. 

“When you’re a scientist just starting, it’s really tempting to just do the next logical experiment,” says class of 2012 biomedical scholar Nels Elde of the University of Utah. “And yet with the support and space Pew provides, you can really go to the next step and explore projects that you’re interested in but might not be daring enough to go after.”

Elde used his “support and space” to look at how certain viruses put selective pressure on cellular pathways and what the outcomes are. Elde worked with the model of vaccinia, the virus that wiped out smallpox, and experimented to see how it could affect the evolution of the human immune system and cellular pathways. These observations, he hopes, could lead to the design of better vaccines

Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins University, Pew biomedical class of 1990, wanted to understand how chromosomes work. “We knew that working on something really fundamental would have implications later on,” she says. “That’s one of the really exciting things about science. You answer a particular question, and then it opens up many more questions and you have a choice about which avenue to go down.” 

Following different paths of scientific inquiry served Greider well. Following her curiosity about chromosomes, she and two other American scientists discovered telomerase, an enzyme that helps chromosomes in the cells stay young, which has great implications for the science of cancer and aging. In 2009, she and those two colleagues won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

“The Pew scholars award really had a major role in my career because I received it fairly early on,” says Greider. “Having the funding and the freedom … allowed me to follow those different directions and learn entirely new things.”

Receiving the unrestricted grant can also offer an entree into new territory. Biomedical scholar Aimee Shen of Tufts University, in the 2012 class, wanted to investigate ways to disable the bacterium Clostridium difficile, which contributes to 14,000 deaths in hospitals each year. Shen believed there was an urgent need to develop new therapeutics to target this bacterium.

“Pew has really helped and inspired me to basically enter a field I wasn’t established in,” Shen says. “Developing new therapeutics could help alleviate health care costs as well as prevent death.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts supports researchers, scientists, and artists

"The Pew biomedical programs provide new scholars with a wealth of practical advice and encouragement from other scientists—which we all need to be successful," says Craig Mello, himself a former Pew scholar who leads a national advisory committee that selects the scholars each year. Mello, a Nobel laureate, also heads a lab at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. (© Frank Curran)

Determining which scientists get to take such chances in the biomedical program is a very selective process. More than 180 academic institutions are invited to submit a single nominee for consideration; program alumni are also welcome to nominate candidates. A national advisory committee led by Craig Mello, another Pew scholar who has won a Nobel Prize and who now heads a laboratory at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, selects 22 scholars, each of whom receives $240,000 over four years.

Over the four years, the scholars work on individual projects and also interact with an extensive network of former scholars, their own class, and the advisory committee. Each year, current scholars and advisers travel to a Pew-sponsored gathering to meet and share ideas with other scientists who have a variety of specialties and interests. It “brings together,” says Greider, “a cohort of people who interact with and learn from each other along the way.” 

At the 2014 meeting, Manu Prakash, class of 2013, showed a room of more than 100 Pew scholars his Foldscope, an origami-inspired microscope that can be assembled from a single sheet of paper and a glass bead, which was developed by his lab at Stanford University. The scope weighs less than two nickels, costs less than a dollar, and can magnify samples 2,000 times. Prakash hopes to bring diagnostic science to remote areas plagued with dengue fever and malaria, and he ultimately aims to create cellphone applications that citizen scientists can use to map the spread of disease.

Says Prakash, “The researchers at the meeting had a sense of openness and respect for the various ways of thinking that make science what it is.”

The annual meetings can also produce new collaborations. At one of the gatherings, a national advisory committee member, Ruth Lehmann of the New York University School of Medicine, and one of the scholars, Aaron Gitler of Stanford University’s School of Medicine, decided to join forces. The result was an editorial published in Science making the case that personalized genomics is a foreseeable reality.

In 1990, Pew launched the Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences. Each year, 10 researchers from Latin America receive support for postdoctoral research in the United States in the lab of an established scientist, along with additional funding to establish a laboratory when they return to their home countries. The program is guided by Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel, who also served as chairman of the scholars’ national advisory committee for more than a decade. The program—developed to combat the “brain drain” of scientists from Latin America and increase scientific discourse across borders—has been successful, with 69 percent of fellows returning to work in their home countries after their fellowship.

The biomedical scholars program has also led to new collaborations for Pew. The late philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis also believed in the promise of young scientists, and her Peace by Pieces Fund supports the program today. Since 2014, the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research has also funded early-career scientists whose research is leading toward a cure for cancer. Pew administers the program funded by the Alexander and Margaret Stewart Trust, which has long been committed to cancer research and prevention.

“Pew scholars have harnessed the potential of this program for three decades, coming together to inspire and engage each other while advancing the biomedical research landscape,” says Mello. “Scientific breakthroughs often come from seemingly unlikely origins, which is why it’s so important to give young scientists the freedom and the support they need to pursue their most creative ideas.” 

Saving the Seas

Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation

The ocean can always surprise you. Kerry Sink, 2016 Pew marine fellow from Cape Town’s South African National Biodiversity Institute, knows that firsthand. 

During her fellowship, Sink is helping design 21 new marine protected areas (MPAs) around the coast of her home country. The Atlantic, Indian, and Southern oceans swirl together at the bottom of the African continent, providing a home to a rich array of sea life often found nowhere else on Earth. The South African government has vowed to protect 5 percent of the waters by 2019, so Sink’s work aims to help policymakers understand this life so they can appropriately manage fishing and other activities. 

While on a monthlong research cruise last October to investigate the potential locations, Sink and her colleagues discovered a coral reef previously undocumented in science—and undiscovered by commercial fishers. Because no one knew it was there, the cold-water reef more than 1,000 feet below the surface—composed of fragile corals, delicate lace corals, soft corals, and spiraling black corals—wasn’t included in the proposed areas of protection, says Sink. 

They also discovered that almost all corals in one of South Africa’s existing MPAs were damaged; they found coral growing on a 40-kilometer-long rocky ridge; they discovered that some fish species are using deep reefs as nurseries; and they found hake swimming in a sea of pink anemones. “We learned,” she says, “that there is still so much to learn!” 

Devoting time to discovery is what scientists and other experts in the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation have been doing since the program began 27 years ago. The 156 scientists and conservationists named fellows over the years have been probing and pondering what threatens the world’s oceans and all that lives there, advancing both expert and lay understanding of the perils that sea life and its habitats face, and what is needed to protect them. Coming from 37 different countries, the fellows have worked on every continent and in every climate, from the ice-covered Arctic to frozen Antarctica, with a healthy dose concentrated in the humid tropics in between. The program is supported by the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation, and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. An international committee of external marine specialists uses a rigorous nomination and review process to select fellows based on their projects’ potential to protect ocean environments. Each fellow is given enough support to focus on his or her work for three years—an opportunity that often changes careers.

The annual meeting that Pew convenes for the fellows each year also offers a chance to exchange ideas and information, expand their networks, and discuss how to communicate what they are learning about the sea.

Like Sink, Jane Lubchenco was doing research when she became a fellow—one of the first—in 1992. She was on the faculty at Oregon State University and “was interested in the discovery—that’s really cool—but also in connecting that to the real world. The fellowship said, yes, you’re on the right track.”

During her fellowship, Lubchenco established the Leopold Leadership Program to train midcareer scientists to be stronger leaders and communicators, and to connect knowledge to action. Lubchenco then created Compass, a nonprofit organization that helps academic scientists engage with the public, media, and policymakers by teaching them to be “bilingual—to speak the language of laypeople,” she says. She then went on to put knowledge into action herself when, in 2009, she became the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In her four-year tenure at the agency, she oversaw fisheries reforms, ecosystem-based management of the seas, and created the first-ever national ocean policy—all of which, she says, used work contributed by Pew fellows.

John Weller (class of 2009), a photographer, filmmaker, and writer, also wanted to share a complicated science story with a global audience, particularly with decision-makers. Weller had photographed and filmed rare images of Antarctica’s Ross Sea and was convinced that once people saw and read about the web of life in the Ross Sea ecosystem—including the penguins, whales, and seals that make the sea their home—it stood a better chance of receiving protections from countries with commercial interests in the area. But he wasn’t sure how to attract a global audience.

“Being a fellow was an icebreaker,” he says. “It opened up so many doors to talk to important people who helped move the project forward.” 

The result was the book The Last Ocean: Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project—Saving the Most Pristine Ecosystem on Earth, which Weller co-authored with Carl Safina, a Pew marine fellow and the founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University. Weller also helped convene a conference of specialists at the first International Marine Conservation Congress in 2010, which led to significant scientific papers on the Ross Sea that helped jump-start the conversation about creating the marine protected area for the sea. Ultimately, he published and displayed his images thousands of times in the countries belonging to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—all free of charge.

“Having that support from Pew was critical,” Weller says. “It freed me from the financial model of wildlife photography.” 

The photographs told a powerful visual story, and the CCAMLR countries made history last October by declaring the largest marine protected area on the planet in the Ross Sea.

And once a Pew fellow, always a Pew fellow. “Every annual meeting is a great opportunity to interact with colleagues working on similar marine conservation issues from all over the planet, discuss topics, and learn about the latest trends in this arena,” says Pablo Garcia Borboroglu (2009 fellow), now the president of the Global Penguin Society, a nonprofit organization he began through his Pew fellowship project. 

Lubchenco says the meetings “are without a doubt the most informative and best meetings of their kind—attended by new people who are doing innovative, exciting, cool science and projects that are making a difference.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts supports researchers, scientists, and artists

Composer and Pew arts fellow Jennifer Higdon, pianist Wolfram Rieger, and baritone singer Thomas Hampson take a bow at Carnegie Hall in 2015 after Hampson and Rieger performed the world premiere of Higdon's "Civil Words," a song cycle with texts from the U.S. Civil War. (© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images)

Expressing Their Art 

Pew Fellowships in the Arts

Receiving a Pew fellowship in the arts affords working artists freedom—the space and time to write, create, perform, and perfect their craft. Over the 25 years since the program at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage began, 323 fellows who live in the five-county Philadelphia region have received a no-strings-attached gift that is currently $75,000. 

“My work’s not super expensive to produce, so it bought me a lot of time, which is what I needed,” says Sarah McEneaney, a visual artist who paints in rich, jeweled tones with egg tempera, which she makes from egg yolks and powdered pigment. Her work depicts autobiographical scenes of her life—cityscapes, self-portraits, her studio with animals lying about, yoga poses—and is in the collection of several American museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in addition to being routinely included in other exhibitions and gallery shows nationwide. 

Each year, artists are nominated for a Pew fellowship by an anonymous group of advisers from the artistic community who are attuned to Philadelphia’s cultural scene. The group changes every year to ensure new perspectives and to broaden the potential pool of nominees. Each nominator can designate up to two artists from an array of disciplines, such as poetry, theater, music, dance, design, folk art, and visual art. Artists are then invited to apply to the program, and the fellows are selected by an interdisciplinary panel of experts in their respected fields, all from outside the Philadelphia region.

The selected artists use the opportunity in a variety of ways. The grant enabled Liberia-born singer and dancer Fatu Gayflor, a 2014 Pew fellow, to “go back to the studio to do more recording, which I hadn’t been able to do for so many years.” It allowed documentary filmmaker Louis Massiah, selected in 1994, “to complete a major documentary that I’d been in the midst of at the time”; the film “W.E.B. Du Bois, A Biography in Four Voices” was the result. Jamaaladeen Tacuma, a musician known for stretching the limits of the electric bass, was in the middle of composing when he was selected in 2011, and he says the funding allowed him to “put everything in motion—because I could finally pay for it.” 

Too often, artists have few opportunities to concentrate on their work in a focused, long-term way. “The fellowship provides significant resources and time to artists, fostering creativity and contributing to a vibrant cultural ecology,” says Paula Marincola, the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage’s executive director.

Such support is often a giant boost of confidence for an artist working in a field characterized by uncertainty and vastly different opinions. “For me, [it] was a validation that I was doing something right in my art,” says award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. “Usually in this country, you spend a lot of time trying to make a living, then make your art. Pew gave me the time to focus. My life changed overnight.”

Higdon’s career took off in 2002, when she received the grant, and hasn’t slowed. The flutist and composer received a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for her “Percussion Concerto.” Then she won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music for her “Violin Concerto.” She turned Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel Cold Mountain into an opera and has been commissioned by orchestras in Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia to write original works—a dream for a classical composer, and a rarity on the modern symphonic stage. Her work is some of the most performed newly commissioned music in the country. 

Higdon says she doesn’t know if any of these things “would have happened if I hadn’t had Pew.”

Some fellows go in new directions—or reclaim old ones. “I had been quite successful as a director and choreographer,” says Hellmut Gottschild, who was part of the first class of Pew fellows in 1992. “It gave me a chance to take a year off and spend some time just reflecting. I love to perform, but it gave me a chance to rediscover that again.”

The fellows have earned accolades the world over. Collectively, they have received 30 Guggenheim fellowships, three MacArthur fellowships, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Rome Prizes, two Grammy awards, and three Philadelphia Poet Laureate appointments. Their work has reached nearly all corners of the world, with performances, presentations, and exhibitions in 49 states and more than 60 countries. 

But the work has had the most tangible effect in Pew’s hometown of Philadelphia, earning the city a spot on the cultural map. “Today, when fellow artists and designers speak about Philadelphia, they say, ‘Wow, I hear amazing things are going on there,’” says architect Brian Phillips (2011 fellow). “The region has become, in my view, one of the great creative laboratories in the country.”