Sassetti, Freeman among 50 researchers to receive six-year, $1.5 million appointments

March 26, 2009

WORCESTER, Mass. – Chosen from a field of more than 2,000 applicants at over 200 institutions in the U.S., University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) assistant professors Marc R. Freeman, PhD, and Christopher M. Sassetti, PhD, are two of only 50 young investigators at 33 institutions to be named Early Career Scientists by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

A new initiative unveiled last year by HHMI to support outstanding young scientists at the beginning of their careers, the Early Career Scientist program provides funding for assistant professors (or higher academic rank), who have run their own lab for two to six years. HHMI backing frees young investigators from the burden of having to pursue federal research grants, which in today’s constrained research funding environment are increasingly difficult to obtain, and gives them the flexibility and resources to pursue new and creative ideas that might not fall under the scope of a traditional research grant.

“HHMI saw a tremendous opportunity 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 will provide each Early Career Scientist with their full salary, benefits and a research budget of $1.5 million over the six-year appointment. The Institute will also cover other expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment. In total, HHMI expects to invest $200 million in this inaugural class of 50 Early Career Scientists.

“This is a truly unique opportunity because this support allows us to pursue research avenues that would otherwise go unexplored because of a lack of resources,” said Dr. Sassetti, assistant professor of molecular genetics & microbiology.

Dr. Sassetti, who joined UMMS in 2004, is researching how the bacteria that causes tuberculosis remains dormant for long periods of time. Since latent bacteria are largely resistant to antibiotics, understanding how to coax them into an active state could lead to more effective treatments.

After completing a postdoctoral position in microbiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Sassetti joined UMMS in 2004. Prior to that, he studied immunology at the University of California San Francisco, where he received his PhD.

“This is a terrific honor for both Chris and the department,” said Allan S. Jacobson, PhD, chair and professor of molecular genetics & microbiology. “It’s a statement that he is an upcoming star in his field and that we have some incredible young talent at UMMS.”

Dr. Freeman, assistant professor of neurobiology, is exploring how glial cells, which represent 90 percent of the cells in the brain, sense brain injury, respond immunologically to neuron death or degeneration, and manage brain recovery from trauma. Understanding the basic roles glial cells perform in these events may prove critical for developing therapies for spinal nerve injuries or neurodegenerative diseases.

“This is a remarkable honor because the competition for the program was so strong,” said Dr. Freeman, assistant professor of neurobiology. “It’s exciting and humbling. At the same time, it shows an enthusiasm for the ideas and the research that we’re pursuing in the lab.”

After receiving his PhD in biology from Yale University, Dr. Freeman completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institutes of Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at the University of Oregon. He joined UMMS in 2004.

“We are all immensely proud of what Marc has already achieved so early in his career,” said Steven Reppert, MD, the Higgins Family Professor of Neuroscience, chair and professor of neurobiology. “The fact that UMMS has two Early Career Scientists speaks volumes about the caliber of research being done at the Medical School.”

About the University of Massachusetts Medical School
The University of Massachusetts Medical School has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. The Medical School attracts more than $200 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. The work of UMMS researcher Craig Mello, PhD, an investigator of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and his colleague Andrew Fire, PhD, then of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, toward the discovery of RNA interference was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and has spawned a new and promising field of research, the global impact of which may prove astounding. UMMS is the academic partner of UMass Memorial Health Care, the largest health care provider in Central Massachusetts. For more information, visit

About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation's largest philanthropies, plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States. In the past two decades HHMI has made investments of more than $8.3 billion for the support, training, and education of the nation's most creative and promising scientists.

HHMI's principal mission is conducting basic biomedical research, which it carries out in collaboration with more than 60 universities, medical centers, and other research institutions throughout the United States. Approximately 350 HHMI investigators, along with a scientific staff of more than 2,000, work at these institutions in Hughes laboratories. In a complementary program at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Loudoun County, Virginia, leading scientists are pursuing long-term, high-risk, high-reward research in a campus specially designed to bring together researchers from disparate disciplines. The Institute's biomedical research expenditures during fiscal year 2008 totaled $658 million.

HHMI researchers are widely recognized for their creativity and productivity: 124 HHMI investigators are members of the National Academy of Sciences, and there are currently 13 Nobel laureates within the investigator community.

The Institute also has a philanthropic grants program that emphasizes initiatives with the power to transform graduate and undergraduate education in the life sciences. Additionally, it supports the work of biomedical researchers in many countries around the globe. Through aggregate investments of more that $1.2 billion, the Institute has sought to reinvigorate life science education at both research universities and liberal arts colleges and to engage the nation's leading scientists in teaching. HHMI grants totaled $83 million in fiscal year 2008.

The HHMI endowment is reported on an annual basis and stood at $17.5 billion at the start of the current fiscal year on September 1, 2008. Its headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.