Introducing Elizabeth Christopherson, President & CEO The Rita Allen Foundation.

As discussed with Kamana Misra PhD, Founding Editor AWISNJ Articles

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ElizabethWhat is the mission and the Vision of The Rita Allen Foundation?

 The Rita Allen Foundation invests in transformative ideas in their earliest stages to leverage their growth and promote breakthrough solutions to significant problems. We enable early-career biomedical scholars to do pioneering research, seed innovative approaches to fostering informed civic engagement, and develop knowledge and networks to build the effectiveness of the philanthropic sector. Over recent years we have built new investments at the intersection of science and society, seeking to support scientific and civic ecosystems where discovery can thrive. Throughout our work, we embrace collaboration, creativity, learning and leadership.

Words Elizabeth

Since 1976, the Foundation has awarded millions of dollars in grants to early-career biomedical scholars. Rita Allen Foundation Scholars are distinguished by their bold approaches to basic scientific questions that address problems of global concern, as well as their potential for learning, leadership and collaboration. These grants allow them to establish labs and pursue research directions with above-average risk and promise. Scholars have gone on to make transformative contributions to their fields of study, and have won recognition including the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Today, Rita Allen Foundation Scholars receive up to $110,000 per year for a maximum of five years. The Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program supports basic biomedical research in the fields of cancer, immunology and neuroscience. There also is a joint award for scholars in pain research, which is sponsored by the Rita Allen Foundation and the American Pain Society.

While private funding accounts for a small portion of support for basic research, it can provide an essential bridge for emerging scientists who have not yet obtained major governmental funding, which often requires that positive findings are already in place. The Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program is among the oldest in the country to fund early-career biomedical scientists pursuing curiosity-driven research. The profound influence of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars’ research attests to the importance of supporting basic research with high risk and high promise.


How and what mentoring roles have females played in your professional life?

We are deeply appreciative of the contributions of women leaders in the Foundation’s work and in our fields. As part of the Wellesley family who has also been involved with leadership in the International Women’s Forum, networks of women leaders have also been an important part of my own story. Mary Hartman, who was head of Rutgers Women’s Global Leadership Institutes, interviewed diverse women at the top of their fields for her book Talking Leadership. They were economists, college presidents, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—even a former New Jersey governor, Christine Todd Whitman. What is striking is that none of these powerful women saw themselves as powerful. As they saw it, they had identified a problem and saw a need to help solve it, and they stepped up to do it. Many of us relate to feeling that call—and the different set of approaches and priorities it inspires. We realize that true leadership is about building agency among others and bringing many diverse voices to the decision table. Change begins with building relationships and a shared vision built on shared values—and it requires time and hard work by many. Identifying problems and finding solutions by listening to “not the usual” suspects is very much a part of our process at the Rita Allen Foundation. We have found that learning, collaboration and inclusiveness are key ingredients of transformational change.

Being headquartered in Princeton NJ, does The Rita Allen Foundation have any affinity with the State?

While our work is national in scope, we are deeply connected to the Princeton and New Jersey communities, benefiting from our region’s rich culture of scientific excellence and commitment to meaningful civic engagement. In addition to drawing prominent Board members and advisers from New Jersey, we have also supported New Jersey-based scientists as part of the Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program, and a number of New Jersey organizations are among our grant partners, including Montclair State University’s Collaborative Journalism Summit, the Citizen’s Campaign, and the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and its mentoring program CREHST (Clinical Research Experience for High School Students). Outside of our core programs, we also give a number of smaller grants to local organizations when opportunities arise.

Does The Rita Allen Foundation support women to address gender inequity, especially in the STEM world that you already invest in?

We are honored to have supported influential women leaders and scientists throughout our history. The Foundation’s Medical Adviser and Chair of our Scientific Advisory Committee is Dr. Kathleen M. Foley, a member of our 1978 class of Scholars. As a national and global leader in pain research and management, she helped take pain to a place of recognition as “the fifth vital sign.”

Other prominent scientists who are active in our network include Dr. Titia de Lange (class of 1995), whose pioneering research on telomeres, protective elements at the end of the chromosome, has won widespread recognition, including one of the first $3 million Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences. More recently, Dr. Elissa Hallem, a 2011 Scholar, was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and a number of our recent Scholars have been awarded NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards.

Any message to the next generation of STEM professionals and our audience?

Our commitments to both scientific research and informed, productive civic engagement have led us to also explore and invest at the intersection of science and society. This is inspired largely by our Scholars—they express the importance of scientists engaging more in public life in order to build support for science as well as informed dialogue around emerging science with societal implications. A greater understanding of science, and a greater engagement of scientists in civic affairs, will certainly be necessary if the United States and its communities are to effectively meet the complex challenges of our time—whether navigating environmental threats, building sustainable economies or establishing law around the use of new biomedical capabilities. And we could all benefit from the curiosity and critical thinking at the heart of the scientific process. We are working with partners across sectors to explore creative opportunities to connect diverse communities with science.

We know the power of building community around topics of importance, to move the needle on entrenched problems over the long term. Our partners work to develop more effective, broader public engagement with science include the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the Annenberg Public Policy Center. And we work with other funders on a number of collaborative efforts aimed at making philanthropy more effective and responsive to needs—including the Fund for Shared Insight, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, and the Health Research Alliance. In all of our efforts, we infuse our conversations with issues that matter across sectors—including the important, difficult work of bringing diverse voices to the table in meaningful ways. We are deeply appreciative of the efforts of Association for Women in Science (AWIS) to build a community of women in science to help bring the field into a thriving, collaborative future.