Ingredients explain Keck success

Kiisa Nishikawa

by Kiisa Nishikawa
Regents’ professor of biology, Northern Arizona University

Let’s begin with the obvious:  Earning a $1 million award from the   W. M. Keck Foundation is very exciting and prestigious. This award is a gateway to accelerate innovative discovery with tremendous impact.

This is a good opportunity, though, to be reminded of what it took to get here. During their site visit in March, program officers from the W. M. Keck Foundation told us the story of the foundation, and how it is motivated by the spirit of being involved in high-risk, high-reward projects in the early stages of development.

Our proposal, “A New Twist on Muscle Contraction,” fits those criteria well. So what are the key characteristics of a high-risk, high-reward project?

First, having a novel idea that’s potentially very important. We all know animals can do amazing things, and through our research we are convinced they must have a faster mechanism to control muscle elasticity than traditional theory explains. We call it the “winding filament” hypothesis and we’ve been working on it for years.

Second, having a transdisciplinary team to develop new methods and tools. This means more than just bringing together researchers and students from different disciplines. It means we’re combining our knowledge and experience to take us to places and produce results beyond anything any of us could do individually. One of the keys is creating an environment where every criticism and idea is welcome. As soon as you start having a judgmental environment, good or bad, you stifle creativity.

Actually, in considering every option, we always consider this: What if we’re totally wrong? Well, if we are, then through our research, we’ll find out. Our work will likely lead to a better idea. And just consider all the other research projects than can be done with the new techniques that we will develop. Finally, consider the impact of our team’ approach and its funding on Northern Arizona University as a whole. So even a worst-case scenario is still pretty good.

But it’s the fourth ingredient that ultimately makes our work possible, and that is support. From President John Haeger. From the Provost Laura Huenneke and Vice President for Research William Grabe, from Dean Paul Jagodzinski and our department chairs, right down to the undergraduate students who work on our team. Even from outside the university, guidance and advice from a previous Keck awardee, Will Hughes of Boise State, proved invaluable. Without the support of each and every one of them, this project could not succeed.