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‘How big can I dream?’

Dr. Jacob Hooker knows that even incremental progress can lead to sizeable results.

The pace of progress for the research scientist is typically measured in increments of generations, not weeks, months or even years.

Experimentation that surely seemed to creep at a tediously slow rate 30 years ago, for example – think human genome sequencing – today can be rightly celebrated for where it has taken us. Consider that for $200, your entire genetic makeup can be mailed to you in about six weeks.

That said, any time an opportunity comes along that offers the ability to advance that timeline a bit, to perhaps accelerate rate of lab innovation by rewarding high-level curiosity and pushing the scientific envelope, it’s an opportunity the best scientists will jump at.

Jacob Hooker, PhD, is one such scientist, and the Rappaport Research Scholarship in Neuroscience is one such opportunity.

Without the restrictions commonly found in the grant-dependent, soft-money world of research funding, the five-year, $500,000 Rappaport award is especially coveted for the flexibility it offers. And by virtue of his position as the Rappaport Research Scholar for 2016-21, Dr. Hooker is the beneficiary of that flexibility.

“Our system of going after funding at NIH [National Institutes of Health] requires us to often make fairly safe bets,” said Hooker, a chemical neuroscientist at Mass General Hospital, Director of Radiochemistry at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, and professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. “Sometimes you have to say, well, this is the science I think will get funded, not necessarily the science I think will actually matter.

“The money the Rappaports provide is totally different. It’s no strings attached, do what you want. It’s worth five times its weight. It sparks creativity, it provides latitude. It’s one of the most treasured awards at MGH, because this sort of flexibility is so rare.”

And Dr. Hooker’s work is well-aligned with the organization that supports it. With the Rappaport Foundation’s focus on mental health and Alzheimer’s Disease, the Hooker Lab’s use of advanced neuroimaging to study the neurological function and connectivity of the human brain is an ideal fit.

His team uses imaging probes to see the chemical function in the brain, and see when it is altered, leading to a better understanding of the underlying dysfunction and, ultimately, better treatment of disease.

Whereas Magnetic Resonance Imaging provides anatomical or functional information, the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans used in the Hooker Lab goes a step further, employing radiolabeled chemical ligands to visualize the density and localization of specific molecules within the body.

In layman’s terms, “We develop tools to demystify the brain,” he said. “I remind people that the human brain is still an enigma on the scale of the universe. If we can figure out how and why it works, and how and why it goes wrong, we have a chance to intervene.”

A native of western North Carolina, which boasts the largest textile mill industry in the country, Hooker loved chemistry for its ability to connect the dots between learning and tangible things. As such, he earned degrees in both Textile Chemistry and Chemistry and graduated as valedictorian in 2002, then continued that pursuit at University of California, Berkeley (“It was geographically motivated,” he said. “And they had the best burritos and wine.”).

He earned his doctorate of philosophy in Chemistry, and became enthralled with neuroimaging after hearing a 2006 presentation on addiction neurobiology by National Medal of Science recipient Joanna Fowler.

“The money the Rappaports provide is totally different. It’s no strings attached, do what you want. It’s worth five times its weight. It sparks creativity, it provides latitude. It’s one of the most treasured awards at MGH, because this sort of flexibility is so rare.”

Dr. Jacob Hooker

“I think what drew me most to that was that Joanna was a card-carrying organic chemist like me, and the entire technique relied on synthesizing these chemical probes,” he said. “The root of everything started from chemical probe development, but in the end it gave this profound way to visualize the human brain and understand how it functions or dysfunctions.”

He wrote to Fowler and expressed his interest in working with her, and with the help of the prestigious Goldhaber Distinguished Fellows award, he conducted his postdoctoral training with her at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The work there was largely geared toward addiction, but in Hooker’s mind, it opened up a world of possibilities.

“It’s a very captivating thing to think about, to peer inside the human brain,” he said. “As a chemist, it felt very empowering to think about that potential, that I could make these molecules and do something important with them.”

And having Hooker as part of her team, Fowler would say, was “like winning the lottery.”

In 2009, Hooker began his independent research career at the Martinos Center, where he first led the construction process of its imaging facility. The same year, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which noted his strong scientific record and unique commitment to science mentorship.

He has since been named a Kavli Fellow by the National Academy of Sciences, received a NARSAD Independent Investigator Award, and was an inaugural recipient of the Talented 12 Award by C&E News.

Dr. Hooker’s lab has the mission of accelerating the study of the living human brain and nervous system through development and application of molecular imaging agents. The lab has developed and patented several imaging technologies for neuroscience, including a first-in-class radiotracer for neuroepigenetic imaging.

So it should come as no surprise that, after unsuccessfully applying for the MGH research award for five consecutive years starting in 2011, he finally got the phone call in 2016, letting him know he had been selected as the Rappaport MGH Research Scholar.

“There’s really a very thoughtful timing as to when they give the award,” he said. “I think they were waiting for my career to mature a little bit, to get to the point where it would have a bigger impact. But I remember getting the call in my office. It was a big, big deal.”

And as critical as the flexibility of the money is, he said the visibility brought by the honor is equally significant. In a universe that includes thousands of researchers, in which Hooker is layered in a program within a center within a department, the Rappaport award shines a light on the work. It sets recipients apart as thought leaders. It helps them to be heard. It serves as a springboard for future funding.

“It has a very hyper-local impact to your day-to-day career,” he said.

And ultimately, it allows him to think big, even in a world where the daily results are typically incremental and substantial scientific innovation can take a lifetime.

“It’s an empowering way to remind yourself that even though it’s hard and you have to be patient, you can dream big on the scale of a career,” he said.

“When you’re in the middle of it, the work might seem impossibly slow, but then you reflect back and think, gosh, that only took 20 years. If you take that forward and wonder what the world will look like in 2040 or 2050, right around the end of my research career, you think, ‘Where can I get to? How big can I dream?’”