Postdoc Kara McKinley, PhD Awarded Regeneron Prize for Creative Innovation

Kara McKinley, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, is one of two recipients of the 7th annual Regeneron Prize for Creative Innovation. McKinley received her award – which includes a $50,000 cash prize – at a ceremony on July 17.

Kara McKinley, PhD
Kara McKinley, PhD

Each year, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals asks the country's leading research institutions to nominate top candidates in the graduate student and postdoctoral fellow categories. This year, the UCSF Graduate Division and Office for Postdoctoral Scholars nominated two postdoctoral scholars to the competition. Finalists were invited to visit Regeneron in May to tour the campus and present their “dream” research proposals in biomedical research to a selection committee of senior scientists at Regeneron.

"The Regeneron Prize for Creative Innovation recognizes inventive, curious and talented young scientists who are at the forefront of the next generation of medical breakthroughs,"  said George D. Yancopoulos, MD, PhD, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron. "There is nothing more important than identifying, encouraging and incentivizing the next generation of great young scientists to take on these critical challenges."

“I am delighted and very grateful,” remarked McKinley about receiving the prize. “The visit to Regeneron was a fantastic opportunity to get feedback on my proposal from their scientific leadership team. Of course, the best part was getting to know the other nine finalists.”

McKinley summarizes her research this way: “I study our body’s amazing capacity to renew and regenerate. Often, people don't think of humans (and other mammals) as particularly regenerative because they don't do conspicuously cool regenerative stuff, like regrow appendages if you cut them off. But many of our organs have a remarkable capacity to self-repair after injury, and even while we’re just going about our daily lives our bodies are getting rid of old or damaged cells and replacing them with new ones. I work on understanding how the right cells end up in the right places as organs renew and regenerate. My work uses mini-organ cultures called organoids that mimic organ function outside of the body. By studying these mini-organs with a microscope, I can watch the renewal process as it is happening to understand how cells are working to maintain regenerative organs.”

McKinley got hooked on science while a junior at Princeton University. She went on to receive a PhD from MIT, after which she joined the lab of Ron Vale at UCSF. “The Vale lab is an extraordinary and inspiring place to do science and to grow as a scientist. Ron and the Vale lab members are incredible role models, and I am very lucky to work with them and learn from them,” she said. “The collaborative spirit of UCSF has been instrumental to my postdoc. I collaborate closely with Ophir Klein’s lab, which is a second home for me. On top of that, I have other wonderful mentors here, including Holly Ingraham, Dyche Mullins and Jeff Bush, who have supported me, challenged me, and pushed my thinking in new directions. Nothing feels out of reach at UCSF.”

As for future plans, McKinley is on the job market for a faculty position this fall. “I’m excited! The work I’m doing now is opening up a lot of interesting new directions, and I’m looking forward to having my own team to think about them, follow them wherever they lead, and to add new questions and perspectives into the mix. The ‘Dream Project’ I proposed for the competition is part of my planned research program for my independent lab – it is wonderful to have additional encouragement for taking this path.”

Read Regeneron’s press release about this year’s prize winners. 

The Graduate Division invites Regeneron Prize proposals from UCSF postdocs and PhD students working in the basic and biomedical sciences near the beginning of each calendar year, and selects up to 2 nominees per category to submit to Regeneron for consideration.