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June 2008 Issue

Jeffery Molkentin, PhD, professor of pediatrics at UC and Howard Hughes Medical Institution investigator.
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UC Pediatrics Professor Named Ohio's Fourth-Ever Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

By Katie Pence
Published June 2008

Jeff Molkentin, PhD, spends hours in the lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center each day, researching and attempting to understand the mechanisms in the body that cause heart disease.

But that’s only during his work day.

Before his day begins—in fact, before the sun rises—the 41-year-old is hitting the gym to prepare for his next power lifting competition.

Molkentin, who competes in professional lifting competitions throughout the area, keeps his office stocked with protein powder and power bars.

Now, it contains another item that shows incredible strength: a 2008 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator award.

This strength, however, comes from the hard work and dedication that goes into Molkentin’s research at UC and Cincinnati Children’s—not protein shakes and arm curls.

“It makes me feel good,” Molkentin says modestly about receiving the influential award. “It was unexpected, but it shows that UC and Children’s are conducting incredible research that impacts the field of medicine in many ways.”

Molkentin is the fourth HHMI investigator ever awarded in Ohio, the third at UC and first at Cincinnati Children’s. He officially received his award on May 27.

He says he applied for the award on a whim.

“It’s open to anyone,” he says.
“I thought I would give it a shot.”

Two other researchers—John Monaco, PhD, and Joanna Groden, PhD, both of the department of molecular genetics—were given junior HHMI awards in 1995, but Molkentin is the first to win this mid-level award with four to 10 years of experience as a researcher and professor.

HHMI is a nonprofit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies. It works to advance biomedical research and science education in the Unites States.

The institute provides long-term, flexible funding to about 300 scientists across the nation, commits almost $700 million a year for research and distributes $80 million in grant support for science education.

Winners of the HHMI award are said to be among the most creative and promising in the nation and are leaders in their field who push their research into new areas of inquiry.

Molkentin was selected from a pool of 1,070 researchers who came from such prestigious universities as Harvard and Duke.

Once selected for this award, investigators continue research at their host institutions but become HHMI employees and derive their salaries and benefits from the institute. The collaboration agreement also provides payment to the host institution for the researcher’s laboratory space.

Molkentin will retain his faculty positions and will continue to participate in teaching and other professional activities at UC and Cincinnati Children’s.

He joined Cincinnati Children’s and UC in September 1997 after he completed his post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern.

His team studies the signaling mechanisms that control cell growth, differentiation and death. This work is creating new knowledge about basic molecular processes that influence cardiac and skeletal development as well as diseases like muscular dystrophy and heart failure.

Molkentin says this award will allow him to expand his research in a more exploratory way.

“HHMI encourages innovative research where as the National Institutes of Health typically funds research that is considered safe and incremental,” he says.

He says the award will also help to increase the visibility of UC and Cincinnati Children’s both locally and nationally.

“This award is typically given to individuals from institutions that have strong and innovative research programs,” Molkentin says. “This shows the success of both UC’s and Cincinnati Children’s.”

He adds that this is yet another way to create stronger bonds between the institutions.

“It is not just an award that benefits solely Cincinnati Children’s or UC,” he says. “It benefits everyone as a whole. It is an example of how the tie between these two institutions can strengthen the impact of our research on a local and national scale.”

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