"NIH says, 'Tell us in five pages what you would do if you could do anything you wanted - no holds barred, no strings attached. Tell us the most high-risk, high-impact project you can think of, and we're going to enable you to do it,'" he said. What results is "some of the most creative science imaginable."
One of this year's winners, Boahen, associate professor of bioengineering, reported that he had been turned down for less competitive awards. "With this one I had to push the envelope even more," he said. "You have to do something wild."
And "wild" is an apt description for what Boahen aims to achieve. In his previous work, he has pilfered from neuroscience's knowledge of the brain to advance the field of computer engineering by designing a blueprint for "brains in silicon."
"Now, what I can do with this award is take the engineering back to neuroscience," he said. His goal is to make the chips programmable and build models so that neuroscientists can better understand the areas they are studying. "I'll be making a 180-degree turn in direction."
Kirkegaard, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, also had her winning proposal shot down four times previously. She intends to investigate how the dengue, West Nile, hepatitis C and polio viruses develop drug resistance and how to reduce the frequency of such occurrences.
"I don't know if my research is more innovative than others; we are all doing the best research we can design," said Kirkegaard. "But I am thrilled that the prestige and amount of this award will allow me to help communicate the intricacies of viral drug resistance." She said she hopes she can provide evidence to persuade drug companies to rethink their approach to designing antiviral drugs.