Summer 2014

The First Spark

Targeted philanthropy supports early stages of promising research into health challenges

By Kathy Hubbard

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Marie Rozan, above left, says she believes research is the future of medicine; Devette Russo sees the value of investing in collaborative research. Photos: Matthew Modoono (Rozan); Kelvin Ma (Russo)

The big questions have a way of stopping us in our tracks sometimes. Can I actually help cure cancer? Or give the world a better understanding of something like post-traumatic stress?

When faced with a problem much bigger than ourselves, it’s easy to think that one person can’t make a difference. But the generosity of Devette Russo, M11P, SK11P, and Marie Rozan, M64, J93P, A95P, proves that isn’t true. Independently, the two women support research at Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences because they see the difference they make by helping scientists better understand, prevent and treat disease. 

We often associate research funding with the government, corporations and foundations. However, seed money from individuals is becoming increasingly important as the first step to gaining more support from those larger, more richly funded entities. Individual gifts such as those from Rozan and Russo enable researchers to conduct pilot research and produce competitive preliminary data that has become essential in many cases to winning more significant grants. 

Seed money is difficult to find, especially for younger scientists who have not yet built a professional reputation. Funding for pilot research from individuals who support not just the science, but the development of scientists as well, is essential to the future of medicine and to maintaining a robust community of expertise, whether at a medical school or within a nation.

Just what kind of return on investment is possible? As one potent example, over the past 10 years, about $450,000 in Russo Collaborative Research Grant funding has translated into nearly $8 million in National Institutes of Health grants received by faculty at the Sackler School and the School of Medicine. Russo has pledged a total of $750,000, some of it to endow future grants.

Even relatively small gifts to collaborative research can exert a tremendous multiplier effect. 

“Truly Translational Research”

Consider one recent example of money amplified to great consequence. Tufts neuroscientists Rob Jackson and Yongjie Yang received the Russo Collaborative Research Grant in 2012. “The Russo funds were incredibly helpful in allowing us to start collecting data that strengthened our NIH grant application,” Jackson says. Ultimately, Jackson and Yang leveraged the Russo grant into nearly $3 million in NIH funding to support their research on the development of astrocyte cells, which may play a role in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. 

“Seed grants and pilot funding from philanthropic individuals allow our scientists the freedom to pursue bold ideas and collect the preliminary data that is essential to leveraging additional grants to move their research forward. Naomi Rosenberg

The Russo and Rozan funding gives researchers the freedom to collaborate with colleagues from different areas of expertise. Receiving a grant from the Stephen and Marie Rozan Research Fund in 2013 allowed assistant professors of neuroscience Jamie Maguire, an expert on stress, and Leon Reijmers, an expert on learning and memory, to join forces. The grant brought them together to investigate how a subset of neurons in the hippocampus region of the brain may control the impact of stress for those with post-traumatic stress disorder. The pair recently submitted a proposal for NIH funding. 

Maguire considers interdisciplinary collaboration of this kind to be the medical school’s greatest asset. “In this economic environment, where obtaining funding is difficult, and in the Boston area, where there are numerous research institutions, these highly productive collaborative efforts are going to be what sets Tufts apart,” she says.

Diana Bianchi, the Natalie V. Zucker Professor of Pediatrics and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts School of Medicine, agrees wholeheartedly. She was part of an interdisciplinary team that received a Russo grant in 2010 for identifying babies in the womb with Down syndrome. The research team included members from the neuroscience and pediatrics departments at the medical school and the computer science department at the School of Engineering. Based on her experience, Bianchi is delighted to be where she is. “The collaboration between the undergraduate campus and the medical school, along with clinical material coming from Tufts Medical Center, really highlights the best of all the worlds at Tufts,” she says. “It’s truly translational medical research.”

Money invested now is meant to pay off later. Rozan says she’s pleased to support Tufts researchers and their pilot projects, because, as she puts it, “I believe research is the future of medicine. New discoveries and treatments will be able to help hundreds of thousands—or more—patients.”

Russo sees the investment in pragmatic terms. “Supporting the scientific process at its earliest stages just makes sense, even more so when it’s in a collaborative environment,” she notes. “It’s so gratifying to know that the Russo grants have allowed small projects to grow into major research initiatives recognized by the NIH as worthy of major funding.”

Naomi Rosenberg, vice dean for research at the School of Medicine and dean of the Sackler School, takes the long view. She believes that individual support, now more than ever, can be game-changing in advancing medical breakthroughs and encouraging new generations of scientists.

“Devette Russo and Marie Rozan clearly see the opportunity that they, and others, have to be part of the solution, especially in these times of uncertain federal funding,” Rosenberg says. “Seed grants and pilot funding from philanthropic individuals allow our scientists the freedom to pursue bold ideas and collect the preliminary data that is essential to leveraging additional grants to move their research forward. The momentum begins and builds with the generosity and foresight of individuals like Ms. Russo and Dr. Rozan.”

How You Can Help

“Tufts’ pilot projects give direction to finding the most promising advances in treating our most challenging diseases as quickly as possible,” says Marie Rozan, M64. “In addition, Tufts’ recent refocus stressing collaborative projects enhances the probability of success in discovering causes and new and effective treatments ofthese diseases. More help is needed in funding these promising research projects. I hope you will join me in supporting these endeavors at our medical school.”

To learn how you can support collaborative and innovative research, contact Rebecca Scott, senior director of development and alumni relations at the School of Medicine, at 617.636.2777 or rebecca.scott@tufts.edu.

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