Philanthropic Impact: Seeding Ideas to Help New Research Bloom

Research funded by the McLennan Family Challenge Grant Program

Matthew McLennan
Courtesy of Matthew McLennan

At the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2015, Harvard Chan School researcher Phyllis Kanki made a key breakthrough in understanding the deadly infection. Funded by the McLennan Family Challenge Grant Program, Kanki’s team led an evaluation of Ebola virus–specific responses in humans from the 1976 and 2015 outbreaks, identifying T cell antigens correlated with survival and protection. Kanki, the Mary Woodward Lasker Professor of Health Sciences, has since applied the technology to better diagnose and understand Zika virus and dengue fever virus responses in Africa.

To fund this research, Kanki leveraged $50,000 of initial seed funding into $3.4 million in sponsored research grants—exactly what Matthew McLennan hoped would happen when he and his family launched the Challenge Grant Program in 2014.

“As a philanthropic return on investment, it’s extraordinarily high,” he says. “To be able to seed an idea that can receive millions of dollars of follow-on funding, and grow into a research platform with even bigger translational impact, is very exciting.”

McLennan, a portfolio manager and head of the Global Value Team at First Eagle Investment Management LLC, has become increasingly involved with the School over the past decade. He is co-chair of the Board of Dean’s Advisors, has served on the Leadership Council Executive Committee, and he and his family established a student fellowship fund.

McLennan says that as he came to know the School better, he saw a need for a funding mechanism that would support faculty research ideas in the early stages. This year, the McLennan family pledged an additional $300,000 of endowed support for the Challenge Grant Program. And to provide further investment in promising work coming out of the program, the Melanie and Matthew McLennan Foundation has pledged $700,000 to establish the McLennan Fund for Acceleration Awards.

These types of innovation awards go beyond simply plugging gaps in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, McLennan says. They can help kick-start a junior faculty member’s career and promote more collaborative team science. He says that the thoughtful way that the deans he’s worked with have put the funding to use to achieve these goals has exceeded his expectations.

“To be able to seed an idea that can receive millions of dollars of follow-on funding, and grow into a research platform with even bigger translational impact, is very exciting.” —Matthew McLennan

“The School has, by virtue of its long history in the field and the pioneering work of its researchers, created a platform that’s very hard for others to match,” McLennan says. Over the years, he’s heard “one inspiring story after another from new students with big visions about how they can make the world a better place, or experienced professors who have dedicated a lifetime to being experts in an area and transforming our understanding of problems. When you get exposed to these individuals, it’s hard not to be inspired and stay involved,” he says. “What really excites me is that the best days of the School are yet to come.”

A few of the 18 projects funded since 2014

Margaret Kruk, associate professor of global health, developed a set of metrics that health system leaders can use in low-resource settings to evaluate quality of care and target investment of limited resources to make the greatest possible impact in health care delivery. She was able to secure more than $2.4 million in additional funding.

William Mair, associate professor of genetics and complex diseases, and Jeffrey Miller, assistant professor of biostatistics, used a 2018 McLennan award to forge a collaboration. Mair’s and Miller’s project combines basic and data science approaches to define how dietary interventions and time-restricted feeding and fasting can promote healthy aging. Building upon the work enabled by the McLennan award, Mair and Miller have submitted grant proposals totaling more than $2.3 million.

JP Onnela, associate professor of biostatistics, developed a data science platform designed to understand human mobility patterns, using cellular call records and GPS information generated through a smartphone application that may help with prevention and management of infectious diseases such as malaria. Onnela has secured more than $500,000 in additional funding, with $3.5 million of research proposals in the pipeline.

Amy Roeder is associate editor of Harvard Public Health.