PHILADELPHIA — Gregory F. Sonnenberg, Ph.D., a research associate at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, has been given an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. These grants encourage scientists who have demonstrated outstanding scientific creativity, intellectual maturity, and leadership skills with the opportunity to conduct independent biomedical or behavioral research by essentially skipping the traditional postdoctoral training period.

Fourteen exceptional early-career scientists who were within one year of completion of their doctoral degrees or clinical residencies will be supported by the NIH Common Fund and contributing NIH Institutes in the second annual cohort of awardees. NIH plans to commit approximately $25.9 million collectively to support their research projects over a five-year period.

“I am enormously honored to be a recipient of the 2012 NIH Director's Early Independence Award and extraordinarily grateful for the outstanding mentoring and institutional commitment to success my advisors and the University of Pennsylvania have provided me,” says Sonnenberg. “This award will allow me to bypass traditional post-doctoral training and immediately follow and develop my own long-term research interests.”

The gastrointestinal tracts of human beings are colonized with over 100 trillion beneficial commensal bacteria, he explains. Interactions between the human immune system and these commensal bacteria dictate the state of health not only within the gastrointestinal tract , but also many other vital organs in the periphery of the body.  Abnormal relationships between our immune system and commensal bacteria have been causally linked to the pathogenesis and progression of numerous chronic human diseases including HIV, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.  

“The award will allow me to establish and lead an independent research laboratory within the Department of Medicine’s Division of Gastroenterology interrogating what maintains healthy host-commensal relationships and what goes wrong in chronic human diseases,” says Sonnenberg.

 “It has been our distinct honor to support Greg’s application, and his receipt of the NIH award is a true testimony to his intelligence, creativity, and work ethic. His research bridges basic science and translational medicine,” states Anil K. Rustgi, MD, chief of Gastroenterology. “The whole process is an illustration of the multi-disciplinary support for him, involving the Department of Medicine, the Division of Gastroenterology, and the Institute for Immunology."

“The NIH is identifying those exceptional students that have the intellect, innovation, drive, and maturity to flourish independently without the need for traditional post-doctoral training,” said NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

More information on the Early Independence Award is available here.

The NIH Common Fund supports a series of exceptionally high impact research programs that are broadly relevant to health and disease. The NIH Director’s awards Program is funded through the Common Fund and managed by the NIH Office of the Director in partnership with the various NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices. Common Fund programs are designed to overcome major research barriers and pursue emerging opportunities for the benefit of the biomedical research community at large. The research products of Common Fund programs are expected to catalyze disease-specific research supported by the NIH Institutes and Centers. Additional information about the NIH Common Fund can be found at

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.6 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $494 million awarded in the 2019 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 43,900 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2019, Penn Medicine provided more than $583 million to benefit our community.

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