Reflections from the First Class of MRA Young Investigators

Dr. Timothy Bullock

Dr. Timothy Bullock, a tumor immunologist, was encouraged by Dr. Michael Weber, an original member of the MRA Grant Review Committee to apply for a Young Investigator Award. Prior to submitting his application to MRA, Dr. Bullock focused on understanding the many ways in which the immune system interacted with cancer. However, he had limited knowledge about melanoma. He submitted a proposal to MRA with the hope of learning more about melanoma, becoming a more well-rounded investigator, and gaining an appreciation for the way the immune system interacts with cancer from a clinical perspective—a hope, he says, that was achieved.

The Young Investigator Award helped Bullock establish himself as an independent investigator and provided an opportunity for exploration that may not have occurred without MRA funding. Dr. Bullock recalls the network and mentoring as particularly rewarding. “The annual Scientific Retreat is a great joy,” as it nurtures the entire field. “MRA leadership and employees are approachable and empathetic. They support the scientific endeavors and the patients. They put everything in a context that is both motivational and inspiring,” adds Bullock.

Seven years later, Dr. Bullock’s work—accelerated by his Young Investigator Award—helped him earn his place among awardees of MRA’s inaugural class of Academic/Industry Partnership-award recipients where his lab supported early-stage clinical trials. Dr. Bullock worked to understand how patients respond to immunotherapy. He currently works in three main areas of translational development around the melanoma microenvironment, including an MRA-funded focused ultrasound project.

As a long-term recipient of MRA funding, Bullock acknowledges the significance of MRA to his career, beginning with the Young Investigator Award that helped establish him and his lab and increase his melanoma knowledge, and the Academic/Industry Partnership and Established Investigator awards, which have helped build upon and sustain his melanoma research. Bullock is an Associate Professor of Pathology and Associate Director of Clinical Hematology Laboratory at the University of Virginia School of Medicine where his lab is part of the Human Immune Therapy Center.

/ “I hope to be a good role model…I hope young investigators look at the program and see there’s a way forward.” /

Dr. Padmanee Sharma

Dr. Padmanee Sharma, one of the first recipients of the Young Investigator Award, is a physician-scientist in the Departments of Genitourinary Medical Oncology and Immunology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She learned about the MRA Young Investigator Award while participating in what she describes as “the first ever, ever, ever meeting of MRA,” where a small group of people, led by Debra and Leon Black discussed how to get the organization off the ground.

Sharma believes the Young Investigator Award provides a foundation on which young investigators can build their careers, as it opens doors for additional and varied future funding. Many young investigators are uncertain and doubtful as they apply for their first grants. They know they can’t conduct research experiments, develop data, or publish papers, all the things needed to help move the field forward, without funding. Dr. Sharma recalls being excited to be a member of the Young Investigator Award inaugural class. The award gave her a confidence boost in herself and her work. As Sharma explains, “People looked at my work and thought enough to fund it. They took a chance and interest in my work, which helped move my career along.” Many MRA Young Investigators see early funding from MRA as a critical launching pad to securing larger investments in the future.

MRA facilitates mentoring and opportunities to exchange ideas with leading experts in the field. Sharma, for example, received instrumental input during the annual Scientific Retreat that helped her design better experiments, projects, and compete for more advanced grants.

MRA is a “family of investigators and philanthropists who believe in the science,” says Sharma. “It’s a core group who will always help to move the field forward,” particularly as federal funding alone is insufficient.

Today, Dr. Sharma continues her work at MD Anderson. Since receiving the early investment by MRA, she has since been funded by the National Institutes of Health and other major funders. She is an active researcher with numerous publishings and helping to advance immunotherapy for the entire field of oncology. The expertise she developed in immunotherapy and melanoma has helped to foster a two-way flow of information as she advances treatments in urological cancers, breaking down the all too common silos seen in medical research.


For the last 10 years, MRA has ignited catalytic change that has helped revolutionize melanoma prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. And, Young Investigators, such as Dr. Bullock and Dr. Sharma, have been a part of the change from the start. They are, as Dr. Bullock suggested, “MRA’s long-term investments," who are helping MRA remain—more than ever—laser-focused on leading the way to a cure for melanoma.