Bright Future: RML researcher receives presidential award for promising scientists

Growing up in Australia with dreams of becoming a ballerina, Sonja Best probably never expected that she would one day be invited by the American government to the White House because of her work as a scientist. One chance trip to Montana more than a decade ago changed all that.

This week, the White House announced that Best, a researcher at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, was among only 94 other researchers in various fields of study across the country to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

It is the highest honor granted by the U.S. government to promising scientists in the early stages of their independent research careers, and includes five years of guaranteed funding support and, of course, a trip to Washington, D.C.

“This is one of the most prestigious awards available to young investigators in the U.S.,” said Marshall Bloom, associate director of the Division of Intramural Research at RML. “This year, only three young scientists from the entire National Institutes of Health were the recipient of the award, and this is the first time anybody from RML has won one of these awards.”

Originally from Australia, Best has been working at Rocky Mountain Labs since 1999 and is currently a tenure-track investigator and head of the Innate Immunity and Pathogenesis unit at the lab.

Best was nominated by Kathryn Zoon, director for intramural research for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for her “extraordinary scientific achievement and community service” and for her innovative use of “flaviviruses,” such as West Nile virus, in innate immune responses.

Best has also mentored many students in various stages of their education.

In her nomination letter, Zoon wrote that “Dr. Best’s group has recently published highly significant results that bring new insights to our understanding of a virulent West Nile virus strain.”

While she was always interested in art and drama, Best turned toward science to follow in the footsteps of her father. While earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology at the Australian National University, she attended a scientific conference in 1999 that happened to be in Bozeman. There, she was recruited to RML by Bloom.

“It was immediately apparent to me that she possessed the qualities and characteristics of an exceptional scientist,” Bloom said. “The years that she worked in my research group were certainly some of the most interesting, exciting and productive in my 40-year research career.”

Bloom said he is proud, but not entirely surprised, that Best was recognized for her achievements.

“From the perspective of RML, we have a number of extremely talented young investigators here,” he said. “As is evident from the fact she has won this award, Sonja is among the pre-eminent. I was thrilled when she became a tenure-track scientist in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and ecstatic that her talents have been recognized by this award.”

Best said the five-year funding she receives as part of the award will help her branch out into areas of research which she ordinarily might not have been able to delve into.

“To have this funding and extra opportunity allows you to be a little bit more free with your thinking and ideas, which is really exciting,” she said.

During her time at Rocky Mountain Labs, Best said that innovations in technology have presented opportunities and challenges in scientific research.

“I think the advent of new technologies makes scientists expect more out of each other, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “But it also means you have to work harder to get the answers you want. It allows us to understand things in a deeper, more complex way.”

Being recognized for her involvement with students was important to her as well, Best explained.

“I have mentored eight undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students,” she said. “Many of them have been quite successful, and have gotten quite prestigious grants. It’s important to prepare the next generation, which is one of the main directives of the NIH.”

Although she doesn’t have a set date on when she will visit the White House for a reception, Best is glad that her parents will be able to make the trip over from Australia. She is also quick to point out that she would never have had the chance to receive this award without all the help she’s gotten along the way.

“In terms of this award, it’s really a culmination of all the support and opportunities that I have been given from the Division of Intramural Research at NIAID, including the support of my own research group and my mentors throughout the years,” she said. “So I really strongly feel that this award is not just for me. It’s for the whole process and everybody I’ve been associated with throughout the years.”

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

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