An Interview with Ann Lurie, Founder of the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences
Ann Lurie Discusses Her Stance on Philanthropy, Role in Establishing the Lurie Prize, and Hopes for the Prize Advancing Solutions in Basic Science
In Conversation with Ann Lurie
Now in its 10th year, the Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences recognizes outstanding achievement by promising scientists. This year, the prize includes a $50,000 honorarium for each of two awardees, made possible by a donation to the FNIH by visionary philanthropist Ann Lurie, President of the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation, President of Lurie Holdings, Inc., and Honorary Member of the FNIH Board.
This is a big year for the FNIH Awards Ceremony, planned for the evening October 19, 2022. In addition to celebrating the 10th anniversary of this celebration, which brings together individuals behind some of the greatest achievements in biomedical science, we are also celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Lurie Prize, which has grown in stature to become one of the nation’s most prestigious honors awarded to deserving scientists.
We asked Ann Lurie to comment on her reasons for establishing this Prize and her hopes for the future.
FNIH: How did you first get involved with the FNIH and how did the idea for the Lurie Prize evolve?
Ann: Medical research was at the top of our list when my late husband and I made plans for our later-in-life philanthropy. We felt that helping to empower medical research was the best way to have a positive impact on humanity.
In 2006, I participated in a public-private partnership with the NIH to fund HIV/AIDS programs for affected teens at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. This made me aware of the potential for individuals to play a role in the work of the NIH. I joined the FNIH board by invitation in 2009. After a few years, I thought I might be able to bring more awareness to the FNIH and to the STEM fields by creating an award to honor the work of a "young" scientist (young being defined as under 52).
I know that scientists tend to be unknown and underappreciated. When I heard the phrase let’s make scientists rock stars, I began to think about how we could recognize scientists doing work that was not yet cycled into use, aka “basic research”, but who were finding “important” facts that would, in time, be used in some positive way, and that their experiences could be used to inspire young people to pursue science as a career.
FNIH: Why is biomedical research important to you?
Ann: Biomedical research leads to solutions to medical and public health problems. It is usually considered “basic research.” Basic research catalyzes new knowledge. It provides new principles and conceptions that contribute to practical applications that ultimately benefit patients.
Another way to think about basic research is that it is a means of understanding the details, sometimes at the molecular level, of how living things function. That knowledge can help to solve problems related to human health. A famous example of basic science research in the field of genetics is the Human Genome Project, during which scientists worked to sequence the entire human genome. Unlocking this genetic code has led in myriad ways to a better understanding of human health and disease, helping individuals make better decisions about their healthcare.
If the public understands the sorts of discoveries of basic scientists that can ultimately be used as tools to produce life-saving results, there will be greater support for basic research. Basic research sounds rather bland, but it’s the start of many bigger solutions to problems of human health.
FNIH: What does philanthropy mean to you?
Ann: To me, philanthropy means concern for the welfare of our fellow man. I believe philanthropy can be demonstrated by assistance to organizations by means that do not merely include funding. Assisting an organization elevate its profile so that others might contribute in their own way is an important aspect of philanthropy. Helping with the “grunt work” is also important. The Greater Chicago Food Depository, for instance, solicits assistance from volunteers in packing food to be distributed to their regional food banks. There are all sorts of ways to be “philanthropic.”
FNIH: What achievements of the Lurie Prize stand out to you and why?
Ann: Two of the researchers awarded the Lurie Prize stand out in my mind for the breadth of potential use of the findings of their scientific investigation. One is Karl Deisseroth and his discovery of “optigenetics” to study the workings of the human brain at the molecular/cellular level. The other is Jennifer Doudna for her part in the discovery of CRISPR technology for gene editing, giving researchers the tool to disable, activate, or change genes. CRISPR contributed to the development of the mRNA vaccines for Covid 19.
By the way, my husband and I participated in the Moderna Vaccine Trials in 2020. After the trial concluded and the vaccine was in use, we found that I was administered the “real” vaccine and my husband received the placebo. We still provide updates to the study regarding the state of our health and our experience(s) when we were infected with COVID this year.
FNIH: As the Lurie Prize enters its 10th year, what are your hopes for the impact and legacy of the Prize?
Ann: My initial hope for the Lurie Prize was to recognize and elevate the profile of scientists. In addition, I wanted to bring understanding of the importance of science in improving the welfare of the human race to students who might have the capacity to carry on scientific inquiry. I hope to see the latter come to fruition with the work with the New York Academy of Sciences, where each year the Lurie Prize winners explain their work in an expert talk to students from middle school through post-grad, their teachers, and the public at large.