Two faculty members earn prestigious Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards

Funding for early-stage, cutting-edge research can be difficult to obtain, but The Hartwell Foundation has selected two projects from Case Western Reserve University faculty members in which to invest.

Jennell C. Vick, assistant professor of psychological sciences, biomedical engineering and pediatrics, and Jonathan E. Sears, associate professor of ophthalmology and cell biology, were among 12 individuals from top research institutions across the country selected for 2011 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Awards. The awards provide financial support to individuals conducting early-stage, innovative biomedical research to advance children’s health.

As Hartwell Investigators, Vick and Sears will receive research support for three years, at $100,000 direct cost per year. In addition, both Vick and Sears will also receive special videoconference equipment to enable both periodic communications with the foundation and facilitate collaboration among other award recipients.

This is the first year Case Western Reserve was eligible to apply for the awards, after the university earned an at-large bid in The Hartwell Foundation’s Top Ten Centers of Biomedical Research selection process in May 2011. As an at-large member, the university could nominate two individuals for awards; full members could nominate up to four. After an internal search for proposals, a faculty committee selected Vick and Sears from more than 70 proposals, explained Lynn Singer, deputy provost and vice president of academic affairs.

In 2011, the foundation selected 12 institutions to nominate individuals for the awards. Others participating in the competition included Cornell University; Duke University; St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; The Johns Hopkins University; University of California, Davis; University of California, San Diego; The University of Michigan; University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; University of Virginia; The University of Wisconsin–Madison; and Yale University. Only Case Western Reserve, Virginia and UC–Davis received two awards each.

“We are gratified to have two fellows funded—it speaks to the research talent here at Case Western Reserve,” Singer said. “We’re already looking forward to the innovative, cutting-edge proposals to be presented in next year’s competition.”

“CWRU leadership exemplified the high level of engagement we expect from participating schools in embracing the Hartwell process. They leveraged the knowledge and experience of a new faculty member, Dr. Michael Wolfe, Hartwell Class of 2007, in making preparing for the competition and their commitment speaks to their success,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.

The 2011 competition was a lengthy, intensive process that began internally last summer, culminating in submission of a proposal, followed by a personal interview and presentation to the foundation in the fall. Vick and Sears learned of their award earlier this month.

Jennell Vick

Vick, who joined the faculty fewer than two years ago, studies how people produce speech—specifically, how they move their tongues, lips and jaw when they talk. With the Hartwell Foundation funding, Vick seeks to treat severe speech disorders in children using state-of-the-art research technology that will help the speech pathologist and child see how the child’s tongue moves during speech.

“The tongue is very well-hidden by the lips and the cheeks, so helping a patient change their patterns of tongue movement can be very challenging,” she explained.

The technology is similar to a video game, except that the child’s tongue movements control the tongue movements of a 3-D animated character, Vick noted. The child and therapist both see the goal for each speech sound being evaluated so they can visualize what adjustments are needed to improve the child’s speech.

“My research will bring these benefits to children who have a very difficult time being understood when they speak, even by their parents and friends,” Vick explained. “This will be an enormous leap forward for the ability of speech-language pathologists to treat these types of disorders.”

Vick has already started planning and ordering equipment to make this innovative treatment a reality for children across the U.S.

“What makes Jennell very special is that she is a licensed clinical speech pathologist who is also trained in statistics, computer science and computational modeling,” Dombrose said. “Her training makes her uniquely well-positioned to pursue the biomedical dynamics of speech motor control and speech production.”

Jonathan Sears

Sears, too, has already begun his research and is excited to put his hypothesis to the test.

Sears joined the faculty at Lerner College of Medicine of the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University when it began in 2002. At the college’s Cole Eye Institute, he studies Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), which is a blindness that affects severely premature infants and is caused by a complication to the oxygen supplementation that is necessary to keep the infants alive. The oxygen can slow the growth of the retina and destroy blood vessels, he explained.

His lab already has devised a way to stabilize oxygen-regulated gene products in the retina to promote normal retina development, even in the presence of high-oxygen concentrations.

“There is still much to learn, because the target of my strategy, an enzyme called hypoxia inducible factor prolyl hydroxylase (HIF PHD), may be located in the liver,” Sears explained. “The Hartwell Foundation award will be used to further investigate whether hepatic HIF PHD is necessary and sufficient to protect the retina and how it accomplishes this remarkable protection in the eye and other tissues.”

Through his research, Sears hopes to uncover new ways to prevent blood vessel damage not only in ROP but in other organs associated with oxygen damage in premature birth—and perhaps even in other diseases that damage blood vessels, such as diabetes.

“Jonathan seeks to control the development of blood vessels by stabilizing HIF in order to recover its normal gene expression profile, which is altered by the effects of elevated oxygen. His innovative proposal is to ‘trick’ the premature retina of a developing fetus into thinking it is exposed to what would otherwise, be a normal level of blood oxygen,” Dombrose said.

The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their professional goals. Each year the foundation announces its selection of participating institutions that are asked to nominate individuals for early-stage, innovative biomedical research that has not yet qualified for significant funding from outside sources and has the potential to benefit children of the United States. Case Western Reserve was asked to nominate two researchers in 2011 and will be included again in the 2012 competition.

Faculty members interested in securing a nomination from CWRU should contact Singer at

For more information on The Hartwell Foundation, visit