HMRI’s initial gift in 2015 enabled the creation of the Heritage Research Institute for the Advancement of Medicine and Science at Caltech. The program provides nine Caltech scientists and engineers—known as Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigators—with salary support and no-strings-attached research funds that free them to pursue high-risk/high-reward projects.
“It was important for HMRI and myself to ensure that basic science wouldn’t be confined to the lab—we wanted to see action and impact,” says Merkin, who has served on the Caltech Board of Trustees since 2007. “It’s been exciting to witness the advancements HMRI investigators have already made and to witness their drive, focus, and determination.”
Caltech’s current HMRI investigators are:
- Hyuck Choo, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering
- Azita Emami, the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering and Deputy Chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science
- Viviana Gradinaru, Assistant Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering and Director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience
- Mitchell Guttman, Assistant Professor of Biology
- Andre Hoelz, Professor of Chemistry
- Sarkis Mazmanian, the Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology
- Sarah Reisman, Professor of Chemistry and Executive Officer for Chemistry
- Mikhail Shapiro, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Schlinger Scholar
- Rebecca Voorhees, Assistant Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering
Supplying Caltech scientists and engineers with support for promising research that could open the door for new, cost-effective therapeutics and technologies is a priority of Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. Caltech approaches translational sciences and technology for health by focusing on fundamental science that spans a broad spectrum of research, including biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, physics, and the social sciences. By joining together and sharing their diverse perspectives, Caltech researchers can see problems from different vantage points. They then partner with clinicians from leading research hospitals and medical schools to focus on applications that benefit medical doctors and patients.
“This remarkable program succeeds because it identifies extraordinarily talented young investigators and provides them with the unfettered resources to tackle problems that will change people’s lives,” says Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “Shaped by Dick Merkin’s depth of knowledge in the field, the Heritage Research Institute for the Advancement of Medicine and Science at Caltech forges powerful connections between fundamental discovery and medical interventions.”
Caltech’s HMRI investigators focus on the basic and essential functions of human life—from the chemical and molecular mechanisms of protein production to the interactions taking place within our microbiomes to the circuitry in our brains—to better understand how to detect, prevent, and treat diseases. By doing so, these researchers have advanced our knowledge of Parkinson’s disease, insomnia, and autism, and have designed approaches and devices that may form the basis of more effective medicines and diagnostic tools, including compounds that can fight bacterial resistance.
Merkin, tapping into his experiences as a physician and healthcare executive—he founded and serves as CEO of Heritage Provider Network, a managed care organization that provides healthcare services to members in California, Arizona, and New York—says the future of health care will involve identifying problems faster, creating more targeted therapies, and offering more affordable treatments. This will require not only advances in biology, but also new technologies and computational methods. In deciding how to direct philanthropy for HMRI, Merkin wanted to invest in an institution where faculty members are encouraged to follow their best ideas and to be unafraid to veer into other fields.
“The composition of the Caltech community and its size create a unique cauldron for interdisciplinary interaction,” Merkin says. “Here, you can do groundbreaking work in chemistry but may have studied engineering in college, or you can be a mathematician and pivot to computational biology. It’s an inspiring ecosystem that enables people to make leaps that wouldn’t be possible at other universities.”
Building on Caltech’s collaborative culture, the HMRI investigators meet approximately twice each academic quarter and update each other on their research. Two members of the cohort—Emami and Shapiro—have joined together to create trackable microdevices that one day may be employed to roam patients’ bodies, monitoring health and even releasing drugs at precise locations. Additionally, physicians and computer scientists from Merkin’s healthcare network have met with HMRI investigators to exchange ideas and learn more about Caltech’s far-reaching vision for improving human health.
“I firmly believe that one person can change the world,” Merkin says. “Imagine what nine, focused HMRI investigators can do for understanding, diagnosing, and treating diseases.”