Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards 2021 Annual Report Introduction

Innovation doesn’t come cheap. Without proof-of-concept to convince highly competitive granting agencies to fund a daring project, many bold ideas are never put into action. This is a particular challenge for younger scientists still establishing their career. La Jolla Institute’s Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology is designed to overcome these hurdles.

This philanthropically-financed program provides seed funding that allows researchers to act on their ideas and help make discoveries that could lead to answers for the important questions surrounding how we can better treat and prevent diseases that afflict us today. Each Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award is $25,000 and must be spent within one year. The goal is to enable scientists to generate enough preliminary data through their projects to attract additional funding to further their research and career.

In addition to funding cutting-edge research, the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK program also trains and advances the careers of the next generation of researchers. Of course, SPARK Award winners ultimately gain experience in running an independent research project, an important career milestone. But equally as important, all SPARK finalists receive coaching in how to communicate their research to the public and how to present their ideas to funders. The value of this often overlooked skill set was never more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic, which emphasized how critical it is for scientists to be able to clearly convey their work and the power of medical research to the public in a way they can understand and support.

Each year, LJI receives dozens of proposals from its postdoctoral scientists. A review panel narrows this pool down to the finalists who then have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a donor panel with the hopes of securing funding to pursue their projects. Since 2017, more than 160 donors have generously funded 27 projects, all of which have the power to transform human health and launch the careers of promising researchers. We are incredibly grateful to all of the donors who are empowering young investigators to take risks that bridge the gap between imagination and ground-breaking discoveries.

It is our pleasure to present the 2021 Annual Report for The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology. This report features the results of the 2020 winners, provides progress updates from our 2021 winners, and offers a sneak peek of our 2022 finalists. We hope you also enjoy and are inspired by our SPARK Stars feature on pg. 22, where we highlight former winners who excelled in their careers or research projects this past year. Thank you again for your interest and support for The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.

Pivoting during a pandemic

In January 2020, that year’s newly minted Tullie and Rickey SPARK Awards winners were filled with excitement. They had just learned they would be receiving a $25,000 SPARK Award to embark on their independent research projects, an opportunity to explore their own scientific questions and build experience managing their own grants. But in just a few short months, our SPARK winners, like all of us, found themselves locked down at home as the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread rapidly around the globe. Quickly it became clear that what we all thought would be a two-week lockdown, was going to be much longer. What wasn’t so clear for La Jolla Institute (LJI) scientists, including our SPARK winners, was what this meant for their research.

Eight labs at LJI quickly turned their research focus toward the new virus, aiming to provide critical information about the virus structure and immune system response that could inform vaccine and antibody therapeutic design. The LJI Coronavirus Task Force was established to enhance internal collaboration and help communicate fact-driven information with the public. Simultaneously, LJI leadership quickly came up with a plan for how to best keep the institute open and operating so that the labs working on critically time-sensitive SARS-CoV-2 research could safely continue their work. The result was that for several months, only researchers working on SARS-CoV-2 studies could have access to the building and their labs.

The challenges didn’t stop there. In those LJI Coronavirus Task Force labs, scientists essentially dropped what they were working on to focus their efforts on research that could help the world tackle the pandemic. And for labs not working on COVID-19 projects? Well, they had to figure out how to keep making progress on their research without access to their equipment, samples and wet-lab experiments. Because hospital systems were overwhelmed as waves of critically sick people filled ICUs and non-emergency surgeries were delayed, many projects that relied on clinical collaborations with physicians for patient samples were stopped in their tracks. And while we were in the midst of all this, there was no way of knowing exactly how long things would remain this way.

But the thing about researchers is, they are remarkably resilient and perseverant. When we’ve asked our SPARK finalists over the past five years what the biggest obstacle to their career is, the most common answer is having to learn how to recommit to science after failed experiments or hypotheses, adjust quickly to new circumstances and environments and find a new approach to the problem. And that is exactly what the 2020 SPARK Award winners did.

As you will see in the final reports from this cohort over the next several pages, we asked each SPARK winner to share how they had to “pivot during the pandemic” to complete their project. For several of them, the biggest challenge was needing an extension due to the lack of access to the labs for several months. However, for others the impact was more substantial. Sara Landeras Bueno, Ph.D., a member of the Saphire Lab, had to put her Ebola-focused project on the back-burner as she helped contribute to her lab’s efforts to untangle the structure of SARS-CoV-2.

Thomas Riffelmacher, Ph.D., whose original project relied on getting tissue samples from patients who had surgery after a heart attack from his collaborator at Oxford University, essentially had to start over and find a different source for samples. Dr. Riffelmacher was able to leverage an existing collaboration to gain access to samples from sickle-cell patients, which still allowed him to study the same cell population involved in inflammation, albeit in a different disease context.

And unfortunately for Alex Marki, Ph.D., who was hoping to utilize samples from patients experiencing sepsis to better understand how to identify and treat the disease, his collaboration fell through completely because of the pandemic and he was unable to complete his project before moving onto a new position this fall. (Dr. Marki’s SPARK Award funds were returned to the LJI Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award fund to be used for future awards). LJI is very proud of how these scientists navigated this very difficult time to successfully complete their projects, and as a supporter of this program, we hope you are too.


Final Reports from the 2020 SPARK Winners

Abhijit Chakraborty, Ph.D.

“SPARK funding is very important because our hypothesis is in a very juvenile state and it requires validation through experimental data. This award will help us build our story, so we can get more funding in the future.”

Sara Landeras-Bueno, Ph.D.

“The SPARK Awards are a boost of energy, and really motivate me to give the best of myself to continue my fight against infectious diseases.”

Cecilia Lindestam Arlehamn, Ph.D.

“It’s crucial to be able to distinguish between diseases with similar clinical manifestations like MAC disease and TB, in order to diagnose them correctly and provide relevant treatment.”

Estefania Quesada-Masachs, M.D., Ph.D.

“Winning a SPARK award would give me the opportunity to explore a possible cause of type 1 diabetes, which could open the door to better treatments and interventions.”

Tom Riffelmacher, Ph.D.

“A better understanding of which cells are involved in promoting the inflammation of clogged arteries in patients with atherosclerosis may give us a target for a new drug to limit the damage following heart attacks.”

Vipul Shukla, Ph.D.

“Our proposed SPARK project will reveal how structures, rather than linear sequences, in our DNA relay information in cells. This is a process we know very little about, and this new knowledge could help lead to better therapeutic approaches to treat many different cancers.”

Greet Verstichel, M.D., Ph.D.

“Model systems are crucial scientific tools on the road to novel therapeutics. In order to take the next step toward our goal of ‘Life Without Disease,’ we need to take our findings into human studies, which is what I hope to do with this SPARK project.”

Progress Reports from the 2021 SPARK Winners

Mehdi Benkahla, Ph.D.

“Our hope is that by using a newly developed model of live human pancreatic slices to unravel the complex interplay between viruses, beta cells and the immune system, we will identify the best approaches for therapeutic and preventive therapies for type 1 diabetes.”

Simon Brunel, Ph.D.

“To be able to meet donors directly who put their trust and faith in you and your work, gives you a concrete reason to invest your efforts in a project in which people trust and see the positive impact that it could bring to help tomorrow’s patient.”

Annie Elong Ngono, Ph.D.

“Winning a SPARK Award would mean a lot to me because it would mean people understand and care about my research on infectious diseases. It would also give me the experience and confidence to apply for an independent young investigator grant which is key for my future career.”

Michael Norris, Ph.D.

“I study viruses in the hopes that one day my work could help save lives. Funding through the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards Program will allow me to leverage my discoveries to design life-saving therapies against some of the world’s deadliest pathogens.”

Artem Romanov, Ph.D.

“I believe that this program offers a great opportunity for young scientists to test and implement high risk and high reward ideas that would be difficult to fund otherwise.”

Payel Roy, Ph.D.

“My experience as a SPARK finalist has inspired me to understand the true essence of my research. Winning this award will further instill confidence that my scientific ideas have the potential to make a difference and save lives.”

Nicolas Thiault, Ph.D.

“This project aims to establish the basis of a new potent tumor immunotherapy that won’t cause side effects, could be affordable, and rapidly available to anyone diagnosed with cancer.”

Hui Zhi, Ph.D.

“Winning a SPARK Award means that the public recognizes the significance and great value of my work. It encourages and motivates me to devote my full energy in my career to fight against infectious diseases.”

Thank you, reviewers


We are extremely grateful for the time and support of the application and pitch reviewers in 2020, who helped select the ‘21 winners of The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology:
Amnon Altman, Ph.D.
Dick Bodman
Mark Bowles
Anthony Carr
Barbara Donnell
Gina Kirchweger, Ph.D.
Christopher A. Lee, MBA
Bob Mahley, Ph.D.
Linda Mahley
Margaret Ng Thow Hing, J.D.
Rachel Perlmutter
Brenda Rickey
Dave Rickey
Sage Shapery
Sandy Shapery, J.D.
Larry Spitcaufsky
Peter St. Clair
Raydene St. Clair
Ingrid Stuiver, Ph.D.
Anna Tullie
Jaqueline Tullie
Judy Tullie
Samantha Tullie
Tom Tullie
David Webb, Ph.D.
Stephen S. Wilson, Ph.D.
Eric Zwisler
Tori Zwisler

Eighth ‘21 SPARK
winner funded

At the event, long-time LJI supporter, James Isaacs, Jr., J.D., was discussing specific SPARK projects with Tom Tullie and LJI faculty, when he learned that one 2021 SPARK Awards finalist had not received funding. At that point he became interested in finding out more about the proposed project of Hui Zhi, Ph.D. After learning about the project from Dr. Zhi’s lab leader, Chris Benedict, Ph.D., who was present at the event, Isaacs was inspired to invest his support.

Dr. Zhi’s project will use state-of-the-art ‘omics’ techniques available at LJI to characterize the immune arsenal of ILC1 cells, critical players in controlling infection and cancer tumor growth.

“ILC1 cells have drawn very little attention, and in Hui’s project I saw a block of scientific experiments and research with almost infinite potential upside,” shares Isaacs. “These experiments would not have happened (at least for now) without me jumping in. In exchange for a relatively small investment, I saw a chance to expand the incredible work launched at LJI by the Tullie and Rickey families, and I grabbed it.”

Viral infections are a huge health and economic threat to society, exemplified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, despite recent immunotherapy approaches to treating cancer, new strategies are still badly needed.

Dr. Zhi’s study aims to establish a solid foundation for harnessing the power of ILC1 in humans for fighting against viral infection and cancer. Dr. Zhi was thrilled to learn his project had received funding. You can read more about what makes ILC1 cells unique and learn more about Dr. Zhi’s desire to pursue this new area of research at lji.org/blog/hui.



SPARK Stars are leading critical research across the globe.

In addition to providing seed funding of innovative ideas, the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program aims to train and support the most promising early-career scientists so they are equipped and encouraged to stay dedicated to medical research. Throughout 2021, we’ve shared some of the successes of our “SPARK Stars” who are demonstrating that donor investment in SPARK is helping to ignite discoveries and field the next generation of researchers. In case you missed them, here are a few of those updates and links to read more:

Daniela Weiskopf, Ph.D.

‘18 SPARK Winner

Dr. Weiskopf has been awarded the 2021 Junior Principal Investigator Award from the organization of Austrian Scientists & Scholars in North America (ASciNA). She received this honor due to her leadership on a groundbreaking study on T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2.

Estefania Quesada-Masachs, M.D. Ph.D.

‘20 SPARK Winner + ‘22 SPARK Finalist

Physician-scientist, Dr. Quesada Masachs was the featured Up & Coming Post-Doc in the Fall 2021 Issue of LJI’s Immune Matters magazine. You can read about Dr. Quesada Masach’s background and learn more about her paradigm-shifting research into type 1 diabetes that was supported by her Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award in 2020.

Ian Mathews, Ph.D.

‘18 SPARK Winner

The $25,000 grant from the donor-driven Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program led Dr. Mathews to receive a highly competitive NIH fellowship in 2019. Then in 2021, the National Cancer Institute also awarded $4.2 million in additional research funding for LJI-led follow-up studies, based on the data Dr. Mathews produced for his SPARK project. In fact, his mentor, LJI Associate Professor Sonia Sharma, Ph.D., has done the math. She found that the SPARK award led to about a 165-fold return on investment.

Vipul Shukla, Ph.D.

‘20 SPARK Winner

Dr. Shukla has recently accepted a faculty position at Northwestern University in Chicago, and will open his lab this winter. “The SPARK program provided an amazing platform to polish my highly ambitious research ideas. In 2020 I was also funded by the National Cancer Institute for a career transition award, which allowed me to accept a faculty position at Northwestern University. Following on the premise of our SPARK award, at Northwestern, our lab will continue to focus on studying the roles of alternative DNA codes in normal and cancer genomes.”

Abhijit Chakraborty, Ph.D. & Marco Orecchioni, Ph.D.

‘20 SPARK Winner &
‘19 SPARK Winner

In March 2021, The Conrad Prebys Foundation awarded more than $450,000 in funding to support two early-career researchers at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI). LJI Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Orecchioni, is leading a project to uncover how human immune cells may trigger atherosclerosis, the cause of heart attacks and strokes. LJI Instructor Dr. Chakraborty, is using the funding to investigate how genomic instability can lead to childhood cancer.

Michael Norris, Ph.D.

‘21 SPARK Winner

Dr. Norris will be starting his own lab at University of Toronto in the spring of 2022. “The SPARK program gave me an indispensable glimpse into the responsibilities and day-to-day of running my own independently funded lab. There are no words for how crucial this learning experience has been for me as I transition to my new role as an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in Canada. My lab will now investigate the structure and molecular assembly of deadly RNA viruses like measles and Ebola. My work will not only provide the structural blueprints to accelerate drug discovery but will also generate new hypotheses to drive innovative biological discovery. I am forever grateful to the amazing donors and friends of LJI that have believed in my vision and jump started my career.”

Donor Honor Roll

Philanthropy fuels the next generation of research

Thank you to all of the generous donors to the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology. The donor list below represents all donors to the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology since the beginning of the program in Fall 2017 through October 2021. Any donor in orange denotes they’ve given enough cumulatively to fund at least one whole SPARK Award.

Acre Investment Real Estate Services
Amnon and Claire Altman
David Anderson
Applied Materials
Nicholas Backer
Edward and Susan Ball Family Foundation
The Bank of America Charitable Fund
Rita Baudewijn-Vanryckeghem
Becton, Dickinson and Company
Lynn Berman
Richard S. and Karna S. Bodman
The Mark and Katie Bowles Family Foundation
Catherine Boyer
David Brenner and Tatiana Kisseleva
Peegan Brosnan
Thomas Butch
C.R. Bard Foundation
Douglas and Lenore Cameron
Megan Carolan
Anthony R. Carr
The Center for Wealth and Legacy
Check Family Foundation
Maurits Cheroutre* and Marie-Louise Cheroutre-Vanryckeghem
Harvey Colchamiro
Robert and Lynne Copeland
Kenneth and Adriane Coveney
Ken and Kathleen Croff
Cushman Foundation
Kelsey and Patrick Dale
Frank and Elizabeth Deni
Peggy Dinan
Barbara Donnell
Andrew Dremak
Ashley Durkin
Ecke-Meyer Family Foundation
James and Jewel Edson
Marc and Michelle Effron
Robert L. and Dominga Enich
Derry and Lois Eynon
Sally Fallon
Thomas and Karen Ferguson
François Ferré and Magda Marquet
L. Michael and Pamela Foley
Craig and Meredith Garner
Amy Geogan
Mary Anne and Dave Gladyszewski
Gleiberman Family Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation
Daniel P. and Patricia C. Gold
Jessica Gonzalez
Caitlin Gould
Stuart Gross
Dave and Carol Hall
Erin Hall
Wilson and Jenna Hambrick
J. and Marla J. Harrigan
Reese Harris
Barbara and James Hartung
Lewis C. Haskell
Katya and James Hazel
Rebecca Helbig
David and Nancy Herrington
Christopher Himes
Breda Hing
Peter and Dawn Holman
Gary and Jeri Horton
Ali Houry
James B. Isaacs, Jr.
Franklin and Catherine Johnson
Terry and Linda Kaltenbach
Andrew Kaplan
Gina Kirchweger and Jan Karlseder
Chad Koelling
John and Cim Kraemer
Gale Krause
Mitchell Kronenberg and Hilde Cheroutre
Kevin and Julie Krumdieck
Ralph T. and June K. Kubo
John J. Lamberti
Cecelia Lance
Gene Lay
Christopher A. and Stephanie Elizabeth Lee
Gary & Lisa Levine Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation
Richard S. and Patricia Levy
Gene Lin
Shao-Chi and Lily Lin
Craig Linden
Aaron and Andrea Ling
Jaime* and Sylvia Liwerant Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation
Shannon London
Chelsea and Erik Luedeke
Annette Luetzow
Morag and Kenneth Mackay
Robert and Linda Mahley
Richard and Carol Markus
Ashley Marquez
Rodney McClendon
Dympna McFadden
Than and Cindy Merrill
Miller-Bowes Giving Fund
The Miller Family Fund
Ernest C. Miller* and Tung-Fen Lin Miller
Jeffrey E. Miller
Dave Mitchell and Judy Bradley
Cherry Miyake
Kevin and Pingya Moore
Daniel Morgan
Eleanor Mosca
Shin Mukai
Lauren Murphy
Gail K. Naughton
Carolyn and Jeffrey Nelson
Joani Nelson
Margaret Ng Thow Hing
Kenneth and Linda Olson
Robert D. and Mary-Lou M. Orphey
Donald Osborne
Renee and Sidney* Parker
Vann and Carol Parker
PartnersFinancial Charitable Foundation
William Passey and Maria Silva
Ramamohan Paturi
Bonnie and Bill Payne
Rachel and Robert Perlmutter
Hunt and Laura Pettit
Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP
Gary Powell
Patrice Purtzer
Erin Randolph
Ray and Jenifer Raub
The Brenda and Dave Rickey Foundation Charitable Trust
Ira and Kathleen Robb
Paulette Roberts
Dan and Laura Roos
Rosemary Kraemer Raitt Foundation Trust
Rotary Club of Del Mar
The Samuel Lawrence Foundation
San Diego Advisor of the Year / Paul and Lori Thiel
Herbert Schnall
Justin and Connie Seng
Sandor and Rebecca Shapery
Jack Shevel
Larry and Tiki Spitcaufsky / Spitcaufsky Memorial Fund
Peter and Raydene St. Clair
Todd Steele
John and Diana Stillwagen
Carole Streeter
Ken and Sharon Strong
Studio L
Lolly Tharp
The Thomas C. Ackerman Foundation
Eileen and Robert Timken
Tom and Judy Tullie / Tullie Family Foundation
Aaron Tyznik
Nancy L. Vaughan
Matthias and Natalie von Herrath
Mark B. Wallner Foundation
J. Mark and Paula Waxman
David and Lila Webb
Carolyn Wheeler
Joanna Wilkinson
Loie Williams
Herman Winick
Richard T.* and Lucy F. Wold
Beverly Wolgast
Andrew Yuen and Elisabeth Wolcott-Yuen

The donor list above represents all donors to The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology specifically as of October 15, 2021