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NIDCR Announces 2017 Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research (SOAR) Awards

Grants support ambitious, long-term research of meritorious mid-career investigators

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that it has issued four awards totaling approximately $1 million each per year to support outstanding researchers in their pursuit of high-risk, high-reward projects with the possibility to profoundly enhance our understanding of dental, oral, and craniofacial diseases and conditions. The support will go to scientists who are investigating skeletal tissue regeneration, craniofacial malformations, head and neck cancer, and links between viral infections and oral inflammation.

The Sustaining Outstanding Achievement in Research (SOAR) awards, issued by the NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), provide up to eight years of grant support to allow mid-career investigators with outstanding records of productivity to have stable funding to pursue potentially transformative research programs.

“To ensure the long-term stability of the biomedical research enterprise, we must encourage successful, independent careers for early-stage investigators and retain them as they become more established,” said NIDCR Director Martha Somerman, DDS, PhD. “The SOAR awards will enable these outstanding investigators to continue their career trajectories while pursuing dental, oral, and craniofacial research projects that have the potential to break new ground and ultimately improve human health.”

NIDCR created the SOAR awards in 2015 to sustain exceptional scientists through a challenging early-established career phase, when many researchers are at risk for leaving the biomedical workforce due to a hypercompetitive funding environment. NIDCR issued the first round of SOAR awards in 2016, with support to two researchers, one focused on tooth regeneration and the other on human papilloma virus (access Mid-Career Funding Helps Scientists Answer Big Questions for more information).

“We are delighted that this round of funding will support diverse areas of dental, oral, and craniofacial science,” said Lillian Shum, PhD, director of NIDCR’s Division of Extramural Research. “Instead of focusing on several short-term projects, as is typical in academia, each investigator will be able to combine their separate but related areas of interest into one larger research program that could significantly advance the field.”

The 2017 NIDCR SOAR investigators are:

Image of a developing mouse skull

Brugmann studies the developing bones (red) and cartilage (blue) in the heads of mice to find ways to treat craniofacial malformations. Credit: Elizabeth Schock.

Samantha Brugmann, PhD, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital
Dr. Brugmann studies neural crest cells that give rise to the facial skeleton during development. Her work seeks to direct neural crest cells to develop into skeletal tissues that can be used to surgically repair craniofacial malformations.

Image of zebrafish head

To understand craniofacial disorders, Crump's group examines the skeletal development of zebrafish (head bones stained red). Credit: Sandeep Paul.

Gage Crump, PhD, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Dr. Crump uses zebrafish models to unravel the developmental causes of congenital disorders of the head and face and to understand how stem cells build, maintain, and repair bones in the head. Ultimately, this knowledge could lead to regenerative medicine treatments for human craniofacial diseases.

Image of oral cancer cells

D’Silva seeks to understand how head and neck cancer cells spread. Credit: Min Liu and Rajat Banerjee.

Nisha D’Silva, BDS, MSD, PhD, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Dr. D’Silva examines the molecular pathways that control the spread and recurrence of head and neck cancer. Her findings may ultimately enable clinicians to identify patients who will best respond to existing treatments, and might also lead to new treatment strategies.

An image of virus-infected cells

Feng is looking at the link between human herpesvirus infection and oral inflammation. Credit: Pinghui Feng.

Pinghui Feng, PhD, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Dr. Feng’s research explores the link between human herpesviruses (e.g. herpes simplex virus and Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus) and chronic oral inflammation, which can cause gum disease. Understanding these molecular mechanisms may lead to therapies for oral and other inflammatory diseases.


NIDCR’s SOAR awards reflect a broader trans-NIH effort to develop additional strategies to grow and retain talented scientists across critical career stages. In August 2017 NIH launched the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, which places greater emphasis on current NIH funding mechanisms aimed at early and early-established investigators, such as NIDCR’s SOAR program, the NIH Common Fund’s New Innovator Awards, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases’ Supplements to Advance Research (STAR) from Projects to Program, and the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences’ Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA).

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) is the nation’s leading funder of research on oral, dental, and craniofacial health. To learn more about NIDCR, visit http://www.nidcr.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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This page last updated: October 04, 2017