NIH Press Release
National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development

Monday, Dec. 16, 1996

NICHD Grantees Receive Presidential Early Career Awards

Two grantees of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) will be among the recipients of this year's Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers presented on December 16, at 4:30 pm in the Old Executive Office Building.

Dr. Lee Ann Niswinder of the Molecular Biology Program of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City is being honored for solving a fundamental mystery about the formation of limbs during embryonic development. Dr. Ali Hemmati-Brivanlou is being honored for his unique research illuminating the cellular mechanisms that control development of the nervous system.

The President's Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers recognize and honor outstanding scientists and engineers at the outset of their independent research careers. The Presidential Awards are intended to recognize some of the finest scientists and engineers who, while early in their research careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge during the 21st century. The awards seek to foster innovative and far-reaching developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, give recognition to the scientific missions of participating agencies, enhance connections between fundamental research and national goals, and highlight the importance of science and technology for the nation's future.

Dr. Lee Niswander's work has had a major impact in the field of developmental biology by defining the role of fibroblast growth factors and elucidating the genetic networks in the growth of the early embryonic structures that lead to limb formation. Her innovative work has combined classical experimental embryology with modern techniques of molecular biology to shed light upon the mechanisms underlying limb growth and formation which have remained unresolved for many years. This work may also provide insight into a variety of genetic birth defects affecting limb development.

Dr. Ali Hemmati-Brivanlou has revolutionized the understanding of the early processes leading to the eventual development of the nervous system. Previously, it was assumed that the early embryonic layer of cells known as the ectoderm would eventually form epidermal (skin) cells unless they received chemical signals to do otherwise. Dr. Hemmati-Brivanlou provided evidence that these cells were actually being prevented from forming neural tissue by the action of a growth factor called activin. He showed that removing the inhibitory effect of activin with another substance, called follistatin, caused ectodermal cells to develop into components of the nervous system. His continuing studies on the role of follistatin and other factors on early nervous system development may also provide insight into the regeneration of neural tissues by suggesting therapies for diseases involving neuronal loss.

The Presidential Award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. The awards will be conferred annually at the White House. Recommendations are received from agencies participating in the awards. This year, the participating agencies are: the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services (through the National Institutes of Health), the Department of Energy: Energy Research Programs, Defense Programs, Department of Defense (U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy), and the Department of Commerce (NOAA, NIST).