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Amaral Receives Major Appointment by Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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March 26, 2009 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Luís Amaral, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, has been appointed an Early Career Scientist by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

With his expertise in computer-based modeling and HHMI support, Amaral wants to build the "Google Maps" of cellular organization -- interactive maps of complex biological networks to help guide those working in molecular biology.

Amaral is one of 50 scientists from 33 institutions across the United States selected for the honor. He will become a full-time employee of the institute for six years, while retaining his affiliation with Northwestern. The nonrenewable HHMI appointment will begin in September.

HHMI will provide each Early Career Scientist with his or her full salary, benefits and a research budget of $1.5 million over the six-year appointment. The institute also will cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment.

The competitive program recognizes the nation's best biomedical scientists at a critical early stage of their academic careers and provides them with flexible funding to develop scientific programs of exceptional merit. The scientists work in all areas of basic biological and biomedical research, and in areas of chemistry, physics, computer science and engineering that are directly related to biology or medicine. All have led their own laboratories for two to six years.

"This is an amazing opportunity that gives me a lot of flexibility to explore new directions and ideas without worrying about the funding," said Amaral. "Success in science often works this way -- the pursuit of new and risky ideas can produce significant results."

The new research Amaral intends to pursue is developing a "Google Maps" of cellular organization. The available data about cellular components -- tens of thousands of genes, tens of thousands of proteins, and the countless interactions between them -- are staggering, but Amaral says navigating that cellular information should really be no more complex than getting around the United States.

What's missing, he says, is the equivalent of the electronic and paper maps that make it easy for us to choose the best route from among hundreds of thousands of air, train and bus routes, and millions of miles of roadway linking about 20,000 U.S. communities.

Amaral will use computational methods to create an equivalent cartographic approach for molecular biology. He hopes that such interactive maps will speed development of smarter therapies for a range of diseases.

A physicist by training, Amaral is a member of the executive committee of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems. His research covers numerous areas within the field of complex systems, with a recent focus on the characterization of complex biological networks.

In the past, Amaral studied problems as diverse as the extraction of medical information from physiologic signals, the growth dynamics of economic and social organizations, the statistics of the price fluctuations of financial assets and the trophic organization of natural ecosystems.

Amaral was named by the W.M. Keck Foundation to its class of Distinguished Young Scholars in Medical Research in 2006. Before joining Northwestern in 2002, he was a visiting scholar and then a research associate at Boston University and Harvard Medical School.

"We saw a tremendous opportunity for HHMI to impact the research community by freeing promising scientists to pursue their best ideas during this early stage of their careers," said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. "At the same time, we hope that our investment in these 50 faculty will free the resources of other agencies to support the work of other outstanding early career scientists."

HHMI, a nonprofit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation's largest philanthropies, launched the new program in March 2008 and anticipates a second competition in 2012.
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