Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards 2022 Annual Report Introduction

Five Years of Fueling the Next Generation of Researchers

When the La Jolla Institute SPARK Awards was first conceived in 2017, we had high hopes for the program but it was the first of its kind that we were aware of, and of course there is always a risk to charting a new course. We were filled with questions about whether it would work.

The program was developed to meet two complementary needs at the Institute. First, young researchers often have fresh and innovative ideas, and their career advancement is dependent on them making their own contributions to the field of immunology, but they are often challenged with finding both the opportunity and funding to take their ideas from concept to solid data. Secondly, we had heard from our supporters that it could be difficult for them to feel like they were making an impact since full-scale research projects or equipment often require large amounts of funding and because it could take so long to see if their donation was contributing to progress or success. So we were tasked with how to make our research more accessible and inspiring to donors. In thinking about these needs we realized there was an opportunity to address both by connecting our supporters directly with our early career scientists eager to explore their big ideas with the help of seed funding.

Our initial goal was to fund at least two $25,000 awards to establish the program. We hoped the program would attract the interest of our postdocs and also resonate with our supporters, but only time would tell. Almost immediately, we saw there was indeed an appetite for this opportunity from our scientists when we received nearly 25 applications in response to the first request for proposals. We narrowed that pool to four finalists who we then trained in lay-friendly communication skills and prepared them to pitch their projects to prospective donors. Next, we needed to see if these scientists and their projects would appeal to donors. We didn’t have to wait long—that first year, thanks to an early first commitment from Board Member François Ferré, Ph.D. and his wife Magda Marquet, Ph.D., we moved into our fundraising campaign with momentum and secured enough funding for four initial projects and more. In fact, in 2018 we funded eight projects. This success confirmed there was indeed a desire for our supporters to connect with our individual scientists and fund specific, short-term projects. But even then we were left with important questions. Would we be able to sustain this interest? How could we ensure this program wouldn’t fizzle out over time? After all, it might take a couple years before we could really see if the program was going to be successful in helping these scientists use the data they collected from their projects to attract follow-on funding for their project or compete for critical career-advancing grants and fellowships.

After sitting on the pitch panel the first year in 2018, Tom Tullie saw the potential of the program, but he also recognized the delicate stage it was in. That was when he and his wife Judy came forward with an incredible $250,000 pledge to ensure the program could fund at least one award a year for the next 10 years. Not only this, but Tom reached out to his long-time friend Dave Rickey and invited him and his wife Brenda to learn about the program and get involved as well. Their joint commitments of $375,000 secured the program for the foreseeable future. To honor their visionary generosity, the program was renamed The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations and Immunology.

With the security of the program in place, we were able to blaze boldly ahead. In 2019, we continued to attract donors to join the Tullies and Rickeys in supporting the program, and we successfully funded another six SPARK Award projects. That summer, LJI representatives and Tom Tullie took the program to a national stage at the Classy Collaborative conference in Boston, to share with others in the non-profit space how we were able to successfully connect donors to our mission through the program. And in the fall of 2019, our first “SPARK Star,” Dr. Rana Herro, advanced her career by securing a faculty position at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which she in part attributed to the experience and skills she gained from her involvement with the SPARK program.

In those early years, SPARK winner feedback highlighted unexpected benefits about the program. For example, we had underestimated how valuable and unique the training we were giving our postdocs was for building their own confidence and preparing them to not only effectively convey their ideas during the award pitches, but also to communicate effectively in interviews for faculty positions or when writing grant applications for private foundations and individuals. These science communication skills were also valuable in helping our supporters feel a more personal connection with the Institute. Over time, SPARK winners have taken on true ambassador roles for LJI, participating in donor tours and events to provide their personal perspectives of amazing work underway at LJI.

By 2020, the program truly became an established gem of the Institute, featuring exciting new projects from LJI’s best and brightest young researchers, as well as inspiring even more donors to become involved. Between 2020 and 2021, supporters funded an additional 16 projects, including several projects aimed at helping us better understand the virus behind the global COVID-19 pandemic. We also started to see the first cohorts of SPARK winners build on their SPARK projects, proving that investment in them and their ideas could result in scientific breakthroughs and career advancement. The first really large follow-on funding grants begin to materialize in 2021, when Dr. Marco Orecchioni and Dr. Abhijit Chakraborty each won six-figure awards from The Conrad Prebys Foundation to build on the data they collected from their SPARK projects. And later that spring, Dr. Ian Mathews, together with his P.I. Dr. Sonia Sharma, secured a $4.2M R01 grant from the National Cancer Institute, stemming from the data he produced with his SPARK award in 2018. Not only that, but in those two years six more SPARK Stars among the 2018–2021 winners went on to start their own labs (Dr. Daniela Weiskopf, Dr. Holger Winkels, Dr. Huy Dinh, Dr. Cecilia Lindestam Arlehamn, Dr. Vipul Shukla, and Dr. Michael Norris).

And now in 2022, our fifth year of awards, the program shows no sign of slowing down. Not only did we fund six new SPARK projects in January, but we’ve also had three more former winners, Dr. Greet Verstichel, Dr. Nicolas Thiault, and Dr. Julie Burel, secure six-figure awards from private individuals and foundations to continue their work.

Looking back over the past five years, we’ve seen SPARK project data contribute to the publication of at least 12 manuscripts in leading scientific journals and four applications for patents, demonstrating the innovative aspects of the projects being funded through this program. And as of writing this, there are roughly 20 papers or grant applications in progress by SPARK Award winners, indicating the number of publications and awards will continue to climb in the next five years.

We are so grateful to the approximately 200 supporters of this program who have helped us raise more than $1.1M since 2017. We are especially grateful for the investment and belief of the Tullie and Rickey families at such a critical time in this program’s history. This partnership helped us confidently build this program to where it is today and has also allowed us to be nimble as we’ve piloted new aspects of the program. For example, in 2021 we implemented a $5,000 pitch bonus to the scientist with the top pitch—to further incentivise our scientists to find ways to make their pitch really stand out to donors. And in 2022 we look forward to giving our 2022 winners an opportunity to compete for an additional $25,000 award after six months of progress, which would concentrate more award dollars behind the project showing the greatest promise.

As we look to the future of the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program, we do still have questions. But we no longer wonder if the program will survive or be successful; instead, we are excited to imagine just how successful it will be.

SPARK program lead benefactors Jackie, Tom, and Judy Tullie with ‘21 winner Michael Norris, Ph.D.

‘21 winner Payel Roy, Ph.D. with SPARK donor Carol Streeter

LJI Chief Scientific Officer, Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D. and ‘22 winners Heather Callaway, Ph.D., Maria Matias, Ph.D., and Melissa Meyer, Ph.D.

SPARK program lead benefactor Tom Tullie giving remarks at the five year anniversary celebration in 2022.

LJI faculty members Sujan Shresta, Ph.D., and Chris Benedict, Ph.D. (center) with ‘21 winner Annie Ngono, Ph.D., Holly Sullivan, ‘19 winner Julie Burel, Ph.D., and ‘21 winner Simon Brunel, Ph.D.

Final Reports from the 2021 SPARK Winners

Michael Norris, Ph.D.

“The SPARK program accelerated a novel project that could have important implications for the development of therapeutics against paramyxovirus infections. This could not only lead to life saving therapies against some of the deadliest viruses known to mankind, but it could also ensure that we have, at the ready, therapeutic drugs against any newly emergent paramyxoviruses.”

Annie Elong Ngono, Ph.D.

“This project emphasized the ability of our team at LJI and our partners in Nepal to screen and classify dengue infection from a patient cohort. This was the first study on dengue infection and pre-existing immunity to Japanese encephalitis virus carried out by our team and Nepalese researchers. Our findings provide valuable preliminary data for future grant applications.”

Mehdi Benkahla, Ph.D.

“This project has shown the value of a new model for studying type 1 diabetes. We’ve been able to generate valuable preliminary data for follow-on funding from NIH. This SPARK award has been a great opportunity for me. We were able to study viral infections in a live human pancreas slices, generate important preliminary data and apply for follow-on funding. It’s a great experience because you manage the entire project by yourself, not just the experiments but the finances as well, which is helpful training for any future scientist.”

Nicolas Thiault, Ph.D.

“Anti-cancer immunotherapies are a major breakthrough in the treatment of neoplastic disease. Nevertheless, major roadblocks still persist, notably the cancer-killing cells themselves which exhibit poor efficiency-facing resistance mechanisms developed by solid tumors and trigger the appearance of toxicity leading to dramatic side effects. The SPARK program has given me the opportunity to test the anti-tumor potential of newly identified potent killer cells. Moreover, the preliminary outcome being promising, this novel project could provide new insights for translational research to develop new and effective immunotherapies for cancer patients.”

Artem Romanov, Ph.D.

“My SPARK project revealed for the first time that there are specific changes in blood metabolite profiles in mild versus severe COVID-19 patients, and that these changes are different in males and females. Surprisingly, more metabolites were elevated in patients with mild COVID-19 cases than with severe COVID-19 cases, which was actually opposite to our initial hypothesis. On the other hand this might be even more interesting because these so-called ‘protective’ metabolites could be used as therapeutic metabolites.”

Payel Roy, Ph.D.

“The SPARK program helped me to establish an immune-based screening strategy for human cardiovascular diseases that can selectively detect those immune cells that have gone rogue. My research identified those specific T cells that accumulate with progressing heart disease. Using diverse immunological assays and cutting-edge sequencing techniques, I unraveled their detailed molecular signatures, thereby facilitating not only their early detection but also paving the way for the development of precise intervention strategies for heart disease.”

Simon Brunel, Ph.D.

“My SPARK award enabled novel research into a cure for autoimmune diseases. My project revealed that we can successfully engineer cells to co-express a specific antigen and a chemokine receptor, allowing cells to migrate to immunologic areas where they can induce immune tolerance for antigens involved in autoimmune diseases.”

Progress Reports from the 2022 SPARK Winners

Heather Callaway, Ph.D.

“My project aims to make a longer lasting rabies vaccine by stabilizing viral proteins.”

Priyanka Saminathan, Ph.D.

“My SPARK project set out to identify why men are more vulnerable to COVID-19 infectivity.”

Gurupreet S. Sethi, Ph.D.

“My project investigates a possible cure for asthma by erasing the memory of immortal allergic T cells of the lungs.”

Melissa Meyer, Ph.D.

“My SPARK award supports work to understand how immune cells that prevent infection differ from immune cells that support tumor progression in melanoma patients.”

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

“The goal of my project is to decipher whether pancreatic beta cells are orchestrating their own demise in type 1 diabetes.”

Maria Inês Matias, Ph.D.

“With my SPARK project, I aim to understand how nutrient availability in a tumor can impact killer T cells differentiation and function.”

2022 SPARK Awards Celebration

On April 12, 2022, La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) hosted guests at a dazzling reception celebrating five years of The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology. The event was held on LJI’s back patio, in part to honor the brilliant ‘22 SPARK winners, but also to recognize the donors and supporters of the program. Guests sipped on “spark”ling cocktails while hearing from LJI leadership about current LJI endeavors and from former SPARK winners about their ongoing research projects.

SPARK Program Manager Kelsey Dale with the ‘22 Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award winners

‘19 SPARK winner Julie Burel, Ph.D. and Anne Hill

‘22 SPARK winner Melissa Meyer, Ph.D., and SPARK donor, Sylvia Liwerant

From left to right: Richard Stryjewski, SPARK donor Peter St Clair, SPARK donor Raydene St Clair, Sam Myers, Ph.D.

From left to right: SPARK donor Barbara Donnell, Michael Croft, Ph.D., and Matthias von Herrath, M.D.

Center: Tom and Judy Tullie with the 2022 Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award winners

Thank you, reviewers


We are extremely grateful for the time and support of the application and pitch reviewers for The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology:
Barbara Donnell
François Ferré, Ph.D.
Cheryl Hammond
Gina Kirchweger, Ph.D.
Christopher Lee, MBA
Bob Mahley, Ph.D.
Sylvia Liwerant
Samuel Myers, Ph.D.
Margaret Ng Thow Hing, J.D.
Dave Rickey
Ingrid Stuiver, Ph.D.
Tom Tullie
David Webb, Ph.D.
Daniela Weiskopf, Ph.D.
Sharleen Wollach




In addition to providing seed funding for innovative ideas, the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program also aims to prepare promising early-career scientists to take the next steps in their research and careers. We regularly share stories of our “SPARK Stars” who are demonstrating that donor investment in SPARK is helping to ignite discoveries and field the next generation of researchers. Here are a few highlights from the past year.


‘20 SPARK Winner

Together with her P.I., Dr. Hilde Cheroutre, Dr. Verstichel has been awarded $400,000 from the Praespero Foundation to continue her SPARK-funded research where she examined gene expression and T cell fate in human cells She has now confirmed that the phenomenon she discovered in mice holds true in humans. Whether a self-reactive T cell is good or bad is determined through gene expression changes very early on. Dr. Verstichel hopes scientists can use these findings to better manipulate T cells and prevent disease.


‘20 SPARK Winner

In January 2022, Dr. Riffelmacher was promoted to Instructor in the Kronenberg Lab. “The SPARK program certainly provided fantastic training in independently conducting research. As an instructor, I am applying what I learned during my SPARK project as I am writing NIH grants and applying to faculty positions in order to continue my work.”


‘20 SPARK Winner

Dr. Landeras-Bueno was promoted to Instructor in the Saphire Lab in May 2022. “I was the first person in my lab to win a SPARK award and after me, three other people in my lab were selected as finalists. I like to think that I inspired them to participate by telling them what the SPARK awards is about. At the end of the day, being an Instructor is not only a recognition of our scientific successes but also a responsibility to mentor and inspire others. My SPARK award helped me to visualize myself as a leader, to manage my own research budget and to propose an independent research project, so I am sure it really contributed to my promotion!”


‘21 SPARK Winner

Dr. Norris, now faculty at the University of Toronto, and an international team of collaborators have published the first-ever look at a key stage in the life cycles of measles and Nipah viruses. Their new study, published as the cover story in Science Advances, reveals how future therapies might stop these viruses in their tracks.


‘21 SPARK Winner

Dr. Thiault’s $25,000 award helped him and PI, Dr. Hilde Cheroutre, to secure $350,000 in follow-on funding from a private family in January 2022. Based on the data from his SPARK project, which underscores the unique and potent functional capacity of the DNT cells, Dr. Thiault and Dr. Cheroutre are using this new funding to investigate whether they are the ideal T cell type to develop a rational-designed immunotherapy to safely and effectively cure glioblastoma (brain cancer) This novel work could have implications for other cancer types as well.


‘18 SPARK Winner

Dr. Weiskopf’s SPARK-funded dengue virus research had direct impacts on her recent work with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, leading to significant discoveries regarding COVID-19 in her own laboratory at LJI which she established in 2020. Earlier this year, Dr. Weiskopf published results from the first investigation in history to compare how three different types of vaccines trigger an immune response against the same pathogen.

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 June 2022. Any donor with their name in bold 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
Jessica and Adrian Ayala
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
Robert Butterfield
C.R. Bard Foundation
Douglas and Lenore Cameron
Megan Carolan
Anthony R. Carr
The Center for Wealth and Legacy
Check Family Foundation
Ellen and David Cohen
Maurits Cheroutre* and Marie-Louise Cheroutre-Vanryckeghem
Maxine and Harvey Colchamiro / Colchamiro Charitable Fund
Robert and Lynne Copeland
Kenneth and Adriane Coveney
Ken and Kathleen Croff
Cushman Foundation
Kelsey and Patrick Dale
Suryasarathi Dasgupta
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 Eggold and Mary Mills
Matt Ellenbogen
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
Ayumi Gillespie
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
Holly Heaton
Rebecca Helbig
David and Nancy Herrington
Christopher Himes
Breda Hing
Peter and Dawn Holman
Gary and Jeri Horton
Ali Houry
James B. Isaacs, Jr.
Niles Johanson
Franklin and Catherine Johnson
Terry and Linda Kaltenbach
Andrew Kaplan
Carol and Mike Kearney
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
Michelle Lord
Chelsea and Erik Luedeke
Annette Luetzow
Morag and Kenneth Mackay
Robert and Linda Mahley
Richard* and Carol Markus
Ashley Marquez
Joel Martin and Pam Reynolds
Rodney McClendon
Dympna McFadden
Christa McReynolds
Than and Cindy Merrill
Joseph Meyer
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
Larraine Nobes
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
Precision Oncology
Patrice Purtzer
Charles Puskas
Amogh Rajanna
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
Denny Sanford
Herbert Schnall
Justin and Connie Seng
Sandor and Rebecca Shapery
Thomas and Candace Sharkey
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
Janet Stull Baumgartner Foundation
Joseph and Joan Tarnowski
Lolly Tharp
The Thomas C. Ackerman Foundation
Eileen and Robert Timken
Tom and Judy Tullie / Tullie Family Foundation
Aaron Tyznik
Claire Van Ryswyk
Nancy L. Vaughan
Mark Veta
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 June 30, 2022