Sam S.-H. Wang, the neuroscientist on the Rita Allen Foundation board, was named a Rita Allen Scholar when he came to Princeton in 2000. To win this prestigious grant, your research area must show great promise in bio-medicine, but you must also be young enough that you have not achieved tenure. Your university or institution must be among those invited by the foundation to submit a candidate. (Those currently represented include the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York University, Rockefeller University, the University of Pittsburgh, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Harvard.)
If you get to the finals, you are subjected to a 30-minute interrogation by the scientific advisory board. Winners get more than half a million dollars, over a five-year period, to pay for staff, materials — anything for the research.
Modern biomedical research is inordinately expensive and needs support from multiple sources, governmental and private. “Sometimes it’s hard for a starting researcher to get off the ground,” says Wang, who is doing leading edge work as well as writing books to explain science to the general public.
The support also had a symbolic value. “It allowed me to go in a new direction,” says Wang, “unfettered by the conservatism of public agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which are under pressure to be risk averse because they are spending our taxes. Organizations like RAF help keep the American basic research community the greatest in the world.”
Of Christopherson, he has high praise: “She has a friendly, inclusive style, seeks out opinions, and can find places of agreement to move forward. She is full of energy and remembers everything. She is one of the most remarkable people I have gotten to know since arriving at Princeton.”
Working on the board is an exciting challenge, says Wang, not just because he helps to choose the science fellows, but also for the expanded mission — financing startup projects to build a civil society. “So many U.S. institutions are changing or at risk — for instance, journalism and public service. RAF is identifying programs to address such needs in their early stages — analogous to the RAF biomedical scholars, but with societal goals in mind.”
“At a middle stage of my career, I could have stayed in the laboratory and the classroom,” says Wang, co-author of the popular “Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College.” But, he adds, “the challenges of growing RAF really spoke to me. Elizabeth and Aristides Georgantas persuaded me to take on the board position, something that would normally go to a more mature person. Accepting the offer was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last five years.”