U-M Prof Snags MacArthur Fellowship For Stem Cell Research

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

When Dr. Yukiko Yamashita’s cell phone rang with the news that she’d been named a MacArthur Fellow, she ignored the call.

“Nobody important calls me on that phone, only my family,” Yamashita says. “I held the phone for 10 full seconds wondering if I should answer or not.”

Deciding that it was a wrong number, she chose not to answer. When her office phone rang a few minutes later from the same phone number, she decided to pick up. She was then informed that she had won the prestigious honor—which comes with $500,000 in no-strings-attached support–for her pioneering work on stem cell research.

Time to crack the bubbly and celebrate, right? Not so fast. Yamashita was still in shock, so she called her husband.

“I really couldn’t believe it,” Yamashita says. “Of course, I didn’t know I was nominated. I called my husband, and he said if they ask for your bank account and pin number, don’t give it to them.”

But it was no phone scam. Yamashita, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute and an assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at U-M’s medical school, will indeed receive funding over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Fellows are selected based on three criteria: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

“Yukiko is one of the most fabulous scientists I know,” said Alan Saltiel, director of the Life Sciences Institute (and an Xconomist), in a statement. “Her lively enthusiasm and impatient curiosity about scientific matters is contagious, and it is terrific to have her on our faculty. This recognition is fitting, and I have no doubt that with this award she will continue to explore and develop important new biological insights.”

Yamashita plans to use the money she will receive to pay for research on how adult stem cells maintain tissue stability.

“I have some ideas that would be very difficult to fund through traditional sources, like the National Institutes of Health,” Yamashita says. “It’s a long shot that anything I find will come to be of practical use to a patient, but I believe understanding is the first step.”