Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards 2023 Annual Report Introduction

Innovation doesn’t come cheap. But without proof-of-concept to convince highly competitive granting agencies to fund a daring project, bold ideas are never put into action. This is a particular challenge for younger scientists still establishing their careers. 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 careers.

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.

Each year, LJI receives proposals from its many early-career scientists. A review panel (listed on page 21) 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 214 donors have generously funded 39 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, for The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.

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 2022 SPARK Winners

Heather Callaway, Ph.D.

“The SPARK award has been an incredible opportunity to learn how to communicate science to the community, design my own research project, and learn about the real logistics behind research grants.”

Maria Inês Matias, Ph.D.

“My SPARK award gave me the confidence that I needed to believe in my scientific skills and opened the doors to new opportunities. It was great to be in close contact with several LJI donors who, through their passion and commitment, supported me throughout this year.”

Melissa Meyer, Ph.D.

“My SPARK award has propelled my career forward. It has not only provided funds for me to pursue an important, clinically relevant question, but it has also given me the confidence to continue on my career path in pursuit of an independent academic position.”

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

“SPARK is a very valuable program. For a young investigator like myself, it was important to develop a project with autonomy, to test a risky hypothesis, and to practice managerial functions such as working with a relatively strict time frame and budget. I also learned a lot about public speaking and communicating science to a lay audience. I enjoyed my interactions with donors and it was very energizing to get to know people from the public who are interested in our science.”

Priyanka Saminathan, Ph.D.

“Securing SPARK funding and learning how to communicate science to a lay audience has given me the confidence to believe in myself and my science, and connect with people who are looking for an opportunity to help make research possible.

I have learned how to manage a small project, train and mentor project assistants, and even provided high school students with the opportunity to learn about sex biases in immunology. I believe my SPARK project has ignited years worth of research that may not have otherwise been explored.”

Gurupreet S. Sethi, Ph.D.

“Receiving a SPARK award was a very special event in my early scientific career. It not only gave me the confidence to think of bold ideas but also trained me to execute them within a definite time frame. I am honored to say that the SPARK award prepared me in so many ways for the next step in my scientific journey.”

2023 SPARK Awards Celebration

La Jolla Institute for Immunology welcomed guests to an outdoor reception on June 1, 2023 in celebration of the six winners of the 2023 Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards. The reception was a chance for LJI to recognize both the supporters of the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program and honor the newest cohort of SPARK winners.

Guests had the opportunity to hear remarks from two former SPARK winners, Tom Riffelmacher, Ph.D. (‘20 SPARK Award winner) and Melissa Meyer, Ph.D. (‘22 SPARK Award winner), who spoke about the impact the program has had on their careers and research.

2023 SPARK Award winners from left to right: Felix Nettersheim, M.D., Erik Ehinger, Dawid Zyla, Ph.D., Sloan Lewis, Ph.D., Gregory Williams, Ph.D. (not pictured: Rosa Isela Gálvez, Ph.D.) Photo credit: Melissa Jacobs

2023 SPARK Award winners from left to right: Felix Nettersheim, M.D., Erik Ehinger, Dawid Zyla, Ph.D., Sloan Lewis, Ph.D., Gregory Williams, Ph.D. (not pictured: Rosa Isela Gálvez, Ph.D.) Photo credit: Melissa Jacobs

SPARK supporters Carol Kearney, Maria Silva, and Barbara Donnell together with Maria Matias Ph.D., ‘22 SPARK winner.

SPARK supporters Carol Kearney, Maria Silva, and Barbara Donnell together with Maria Matias, Ph.D., ‘22 SPARK winner.

Judy, Anna and Tom Tullie, foundational donors of the Tullie and Rickey SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.

Judy, Anna and Tom Tullie, foundational donors of the Tullie and Rickey SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.

Tom Riffelmacher, Ph.D., ‘20 SPARK winner.

Tom Riffelmacher, Ph.D., ‘20 SPARK winner.

Progress Reports from the 2023 SPARK Winners

Erik Ehinger

“The goal of this project is to take a new class of therapeutics and transition it to apply it to cancer immunotherapy in the hopes of creating a better immune response to solid tumors.”

Dawid Zyla, Ph.D.

“My project aims to develop an antigen-based method that can measure virus levels in the blood and guide immunosuppression medication administration to lower the possibility of viremia.”

Felix Nettersheim, M.D.

“Current heart disease vaccine candidates have limited efficacy. I have identified two molecules that could be the cause for this, and in this project, I want to test whether blocking these molecules could enhance the efficacy of a heart disease vaccine.”

Rosa Isela Gálvez, Ph.D.

“The goal of my project is to understand how an individual’s history of infection is modulating the response to specific pathogens, in this case Malaria and dengue.”

Sloan Lewis, Ph.D.

“The goal of my project is to look at a subset of immune cells called monocytes, and understand them in the context of pediatric cow’s milk allergy.”

Gregory Williams, Ph.D.

“The goal of my project is to study T cells in the blood of ALS patients and see if we can identify a destructive phenotype within these T cells, as compared to people who have not developed ALS. If we can pinpoint destructive T cells, this might be an avenue for potential therapy to slow or pause the progression of the disease.”

Thank you, reviewers


We are extremely grateful for the time and support of the application and pitch reviewers for the 2023 Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology:
Richard S. Bodman
Michael Croft, Ph.D.
Kelsey Dale, CFRE, CSPG
Barbara Donnell
François Ferré
Cheryl Hammond
Gina Kirchweger, Ph.D.
Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D.
John Kraemer
Robert Mahley, Ph.D.
Joel Martin, Ph.D.
Joani Nelson
Margaret Ng Thow Hing, J.D.
Brenda Rickey
David Rickey
Sonia Sharma, Ph.D.
Maria Silva
Peter St. Clair
Raydene St. Clair
Judy Tullie
Tom Tullie
David Webb, Ph.D.




In addition to providing seed funding for innovative ideas, the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program also aims to train and support the most promising early-career scientists so that they are equipped and encouraged to stay dedicated to medical research. Throughout 2023 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:


‘18 SPARK Winner

In November 2022, Research Assistant Professor Daniela Weiskopf, Ph.D., was among seven LJI scientists named to the 2022 Highly Cited List, released by Clarivate. This distinction recognizes scientists whose papers have ranked in the top 1% of citations for their field of study between 2010 and 2020. For Dr. Weiskopf, being named to the Highly Cited List reflects the global impact of her COVID-19 research.


‘21 SPARK Winner

In December 2022, Instructor Annie Elong Ngono, Ph.D., was recognized for her infectious disease research spearheading important studies into the human body’s response to deadly pathogens such as dengue virus. Her dedication to global health and virology earned her acceptance to the Global Virus Network’s (GVN) highly selective Rising Star Mentorship Program. The program offers early career virologists unique opportunities for close collaboration with more senior scientists and clinicians. Dr. Elong Ngono will also get to participate in exclusive GVN meetings and other professional development opportunities in virology.


‘20 SPARK Winner

In October 2022, Research Assistant Professor Cecilia Lindestam Arlehamn, Ph.D., was granted more than $25,000 through a Women’s Health Access Matters (WHAM) Edge Award to support new research into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Lindestam Arlehamn aims to shed light on how sex-based immune system differences may affect the development and progression of these neurodegenerative diseases in men versus women.


‘22 SPARK Winner & ‘23 SPARK Winner

In 2022, Postdoctoral Fellow Melissa Meyer, Ph.D., and Graduate Student Researcher Erik Ehinger, each received $100,000 in Primer Phase funding from the Accelerator Primer Program, supported by LJI’s longtime partner Kyowa Kirin. Earlier this year, both researchers each went on to receive an additional $200,000 in booster funding to continue their research from the same program.



In 2022, Tom Riffelmacher, Ph.D., was named Director of the Immunometabolism Core, LJI’s newest research core facility. As Core Director, Dr. Riffelmacher uses cutting-edge techniques to study how immune cells work—and how we might boost cellular metabolism to better fight disease.

In May 2023, Dr. Riffelmacher published a new study in Nature Cell Biology, exploring the location, function, gene expression, and metabolism of mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells, in the mouse lung. The findings may now inspire novel vaccines and cell therapies that shift the balance between these two cell groups to help individuals fight specific pathogens.



In April 2023, Instructor Estefania Quesada-Masachs, M.D., Ph.D., won the 2023 Young Investigator of the Year Award from the Network for Pancreatic Organ donors with Diabetes (nPOD). This prestigious award recognizes Dr. Quesada-Masachs’ groundbreaking research in type 1 diabetes.

In May 2023, Dr. Quesada-Masachs won a $2.7M R01 grant from the NIH which will allow her to study the role of killer T cells in the development of type 1 diabetes, and determine how these cells contribute to the destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This accomplishment also earned her a promotion to Instructor at LJI.


‘22 SPARK Winner

In December 2022, Dr. Sethi earned a promotion to Instructor in the Croft Lab.


‘22 SPARK Winner

In July 2023, Dr. Saminathan won $100,000 in funding from Gary and Shuko Clouse to support her research on Alzheimer’s disease in the Sharma Lab. With this postdoctoral fellowship, Dr. Saminathan will continue to spearhead a humans-first approach to deciphering the unique metabolic/metabolite differences in women and men who develop Alzheimer’s disease.



‘22 SPARK Winner

In August 2023, Postdoctoral Fellow Heather Callaway, Ph.D., accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Montana State University where her lab will focus on understanding how antibodies bind to and neutralize rabies virus, and designing a long-lasting pan-lyssavirus vaccine.


‘20 SPARK Winner

In July 2023, Instructor Sara Landeras Bueno, Ph.D., accepted a position as Research Professor at the University Cardenal Herrera in Valencia, Spain, where she will establish her own independent lab focused on pandemic preparedness research, integrating her knowledge of influenza virus, Ebola virus, and coronavirus to gain a comprehensive understanding of RNA viruses with pandemic potential, and to find broad-spectrum targets for therapeutic intervention.

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 2023. Any donor in orange denotes they’ve given $25,000+, the equivalent of 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
Claudia Baird
Edward and Susan Ball Family Foundation
The Bank of America Charitable Fund
Rita Baudewijn-Vanryckeghem
Janet Stull Baumgartner
Becton, Dickinson and Company
Philip and Jane Bellomy
Lynn Berman
Richard S. and Karna S. Bodman
The Mark and Katie Bowles Family Foundation
Catherine and Charles Boyer
David Brenner and Tatiana Kisseleva
Peegan Brosnan
Thomas Butch
Robert Butterfield
C.R. Bard Foundation
Douglas and Lenore Cameron
Cappetta Family Foundation
Megan Carolan
Anthony R. Carr
The Center for Wealth and Legacy
Check Family Foundation
Maurits Cheroutre* and Marie-Louise
David and Robyn Cohen
Harvey Colchamiro
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
Clare and James Grotting
Dave and Carol Hall
Erin Hall
Wilson and Jenna Hambrick
Mary Harker
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.
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
Gary and Diana Macek
Morag and Kenneth Mackay
Robert and Linda Mahley
Marilynn Mansfield
Maravai LifeSciences
Richard* and Carol Markus
Ashley Marquez
Karin Marsilje-Monnett and James Monnett, Jr.
Joel Martin and Pam Reynolds
Stan McCauley
Rodney McClendon
Dympna McFadden
Christa McReynolds
Than and Cindy Merrill
Joseph Meyer
Zbigniew and Magdalena Mikulski
Miller-Bowes Giving Fund
The Miller Family Fund
Ernest C. Miller* and Tung-Fen Lin Miller
Jeffrey E. Miller
Howard* and Elaine Mitchell
Judith L. Bradley and David L. Mitchell
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
Maria Ortega
Donald Osborne
Renee and Sidney* Parker
Vann and Carol Parker
PartnersFinancial Charitable
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 and Penny Powell
Precision For Medicine
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
Sharon Schendel
Herbert Schnall
Justin and Connie Seng
Thomas and Suzanna 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
Lolly Tharp
The Thomas C. Ackerman
Eileen and Robert Timken
Tom and Judy Tullie /
Tullie Family Foundation

Aaron Tyznik
Claire Van Ryswyk
Cathy Vanous
Nancy L. Vaughan
Mark Veta
Matthias and Natalie von Herrath
Ursula Wagstaff-Kuster
Mark B. Wallner Foundation
J. Mark and Paula Waxman /
Waxman Charitable Giving
Account at Fidelity Charitable
David and Lila Webb
Carolyn Wheeler
Joanna Wilkinson
Loie Williams
Herman Winick
Richard T.* and Lucy F. Wold
Beverly Wolgast
Andrew Yuen and Elisabeth

The donor list above represents all donors to The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology specifically as of June 30, 2023