Overview

Innovation doesn’t come cheap. But 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, who are still establishing their career. La Jolla Institute’s Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program is designed to overcome these hurdles.

The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology provides $25,000 in flexible start-up funding that enables LJI’s early career investigators to act on their promising projects for bold new approaches to diagnoses, treatments, and possibly even cures for diseases that afflict us today. It fills the gap between scientists’ imagination and that first solid set of data that allows them to attract additional funding to further their research and ultimately make life-saving discoveries.

Each year, LJI receives dozens of proposals from its graduate student and post-doctoral scientists. A panel that includes Institute scientists, leadership and the Tullie and Rickey families, reviews the proposals, selects the finalists, and has each of them present their projects in person. The finalists are then ranked in order to receive funding based on the total amount raised for the program that year from donor contributions. Each Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award provides $25,000 in funding that must be spent within a year.

In addition to funding high-risk, high-reward research, the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program also provides training in how to communicate the importance of research to the public and attract private funding. And, award winners ultimately gain the experience in running an independent research project, which can be an important career milestone.

By making a gift to support the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards program, you have the potential to help bring groundbreaking discoveries to light by providing critical seed-funding to get them started.

2022 SPARK Finalists

Heather Callaway, Ph.D.

“Winning a SPARK Award would give me an opportunity to take what I’ve learned from working on the structure of rabies virus in the lab and apply it to the real world to help save lives.”

Maria Inês Matias, Ph.D.


“I applied to the SPARK program because it’s a great opportunity to have the possibility of being funded at the beginning of a project. This funding is critical to generate our preliminary data and show our ideas have potential. It’s just an opportunity that you can’t miss.”

Melissa Meyer, Ph.D.

“Securing funding in the scientific arena for young investigators is incredibly difficult — yet it’s super imperative to our career survival. So winning a SPARK Award would really motivate me to continue my pursuit of an academic career and also to contribute to new ideas around neutrophils.”

Eduardo Olmedillas, Ph.D.


“Having this independent funding would mean a lot to me because knowing that people are interested in my ideas, and will donate towards them, gives me a boost of confidence that my research matters.”

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

“I reapplied to the SPARK program this year, because I have a new scientific question about type 1 diabetes and I think this funding would help lead to that answer. In my experience, this kind of unique funding opportunity can help open a new line of research that I can then continue to follow.”

Priyanka Saminathan, Ph.D.

“I believe when you choose to invest in early-career researchers, such as myself and the other SPARK finalists, you not only invest in our careers, but also our vision for a better tomorrow and a greater future for everyone. Thank you for being the citizens that the world needs today.”

Gurupreet S. Sethi, Ph.D.

“I would like to convey my sincere thanks to all the kind SPARK donors for motivating and supporting scientists like us. You are one of the reasons that we are allowed to think out of the box and believe we can actually contribute to LJI’s vision of life without disease.”

Shailendra Verma, Ph.D.

“Winning a SPARK award would not only motivate me but also boost up my career in the field of emerging infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Funding also has the potential to contribute to developing the next generation of vaccines and therapeutics against future variants of SARS-CoV-2.”

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.”

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.”

2019 SPARK Winners

Huy Dinh, Ph.D.


“My ultimate goal is to identify DNA biomarkers which potentially provide an economical and efficient test to spot early cancer symptoms at the molecular level in human blood.”

Julie Burel, Ph.D.


“Every infectious agent – from viruses, bacteria to parasites – has a unique genetic footprint, which can be used to identify it.”

Marco Orecchioni, Ph.D.


“What we eat not only feeds us, but also the vast microcosm of bacteria that call our intestines home.”

Sara McArdle, Ph.D.

“Clarifying how the innate immune system and cancer cells interact via super-resolution imaging will accelerate our understanding of the cancer immune response and may lead to the discovery of targets for treatments that more effectively attack cancer while causing fewer side effects.”

Mehdi Benkahla, Ph.D.


“It is important to understand how viral infections contribute to the onset of T1D in order to prevent or reverse its development.”

2018 SPARK Winners

Ian Mathews


“My SPARK award has really blossomed into something special. It’s led to a well-funded project of its own, with immense potential for clinical benefit in immune oncology.”

Rana Herro, Ph.D.


“The SPARK grant turned out to be a crucial springboard for my career as an independent researcher. But the implication of this work for human allergic disorders is even bigger.”

Nadine Hartmann, Ph.D.


“For me, SPARK equals opportunity—it allowed me to work on a meaningful project of my own that will help shed light on how our gut can influence our risk for cancer.”

Holger Winkels, Ph.D.


“The SPARK award helped me to gain valuable insights into these cells and set me on my path of academic independence. Exciting work lies ahead.”

Daniela Weiskopf, Ph.D.

“The SPARK program has an immediate impact on the research of young scientists like me. It empowered me to pursue my own ideas and helped to create enough preliminary data to seek additional independent funding–which is critical to advancing in a scientific career.”

Yuan Lin, Ph.D.


“The SPARK award was critical because my research was stalled at an early stage and finding other support was very difficult. In the near future our goal is to develop a drug that can cure cancer.”

Melanie McCauley, M.D.


“My SPARK award made it possible for me to gather and analyze patient samples in order to help us better understand the immune system’s response when a naïve population has been newly introduced to dengue virus.”

About the Tullie and Rickey Families


We’d like to thank and recognize the incredible support and generosity of LJI Board Director Tom Tullie and his wife Judy, as well as LJI Board Director Dave Rickey and his wife, Brenda, and their families. Their joint commitments to the SPARK program made in 2019 meant LJI has the assurance that this program will have funding in place for several awards a year for the next decade. That year, LJI honored their commitment by renaming the SPARK program to The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.

Tom Tullie was one of the first SPARK pitch reviewers in 2018, and that was what drove him to get his family engaged in the program. “I’ve been an entrepreneur and involved in innovation my entire career, but this is the most exciting program I’ve seen because the ideas these young scientists have are not only fascinating, they have the potential to generate breakthrough discoveries that will someday save lives,” says Tom. Since then, Tom and his wife Judy and their daughters Jaqueline, Anna and Samantha have all taken part in the pitch review process.

For the Rickeys, involvement in the SPARK program was spurred by an invitation from Tom and also by the couple’s belief in the Institute’s mission. “Brenda and I love the idea of ‘life without disease’ because so many of our friends and family have suffered or died from cancer, heart problems, dementia, and other ailments,” Dave says. The Rickeys were attracted to the SPARK program largely due to its structure and opportunity to drive research forward. “In the philanthropy world, we like to give money where there will be a return. This program is really tangible and it’s good to see.”

From left to right: Judy and Tom Tullie, Dave and Brenda Rickey

From left to right: Judy and Tom Tullie, Dave and Brenda Rickey


The Tullie and Rickey families hope that by ensuring the program’s longevity, other donors will be inspired to contribute to the program to fund additional awards and get as many of these ideas off the ground as possible. “I’d love to see people join us,” shares Tom, “I guarantee you that it will be well worth our investment because these ideas are unbelievable and they need to get funded.”