A famous reporter was once advised to “follow the money.” Here at the University of Minnesota, tracing the journey of a $25,000 gift from Liz Hawn and her husband, Van, on its path through the Department of Neuroscience is a perfect case in point for how private donations can reignite critical research—and, ultimately, become the gift that keeps on giving.
When department head Timothy Ebner, M.D., Ph.D., holder of the Max E. and Mary LaDue Pickworth Endowed Chair in Neuroscience, received the Hawns’ donation last December, he split the funds between two scientists who had reached an impasse in their research due to lack of funding.
Paul Mermelstein, Ph.D., researches the effects of estrogens on the female brain, but late last year two major grant proposals were in jeopardy because lab resources had been stretched too thin. When Ebner funneled $10,000 of the Hawns’ gift to the lab, the relatively modest sum kept the team going. And in July, both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation kicked in significant dollars to put the work back on track.
Mark Thomas, Ph.D., meanwhile, was studying the underlying neurobiological mechanism responsible for drug addiction relapse when funding for a key lab member ran out, threatening to halt the promising research. The remaining $15,000 from the Hawns’ gift saved the day.
“Addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder,” Thomas explains, “and, using a mouse model, we’d identified a specific change in the brain when an addicted mouse was exposed to a stressor or re-exposed to the addictive drug. Unfortunately, you can have what seem like marvelous, innovative ideas, but if you don’t have the right team of well-trained people and the right equipment well, you won’t get very far.”
Restoring support for one of those well-trained people allowed Thomas’s research team to finish work necessary for its grant proposals to the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the NIH— which also paid off in spades.
“The combined total dollars for the four grants Paul and Mark received will be more than $4 million,” Ebner says, “leveraging the Hawn gift into a spectacular rate of return.”
“The basic science projects often have the hardest time getting funding—those things that aren’t ‘sexy’ but are so important,” says Liz Hawn, who serves on the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s board of trustees and has recently donated another $25,000 to the University. “I was really pleased to find out how much our gift helped.”
Donations of all sizes can make a difference, says Mermelstein. “It’s about more than dollars. It’s the idea that an individual is willing to support our work. It changes the dynamic in the lab, really driving home the message that what we’re doing is working to improve lives. We’re all incredibly appreciative.”