Ilana Witten wins NIH Director’s Pioneer Award

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
Oct. 3, 2023

Ilana Witten, a professor in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, has been selected to receive a Director's Pioneer Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Witten, an expert in the brain activity that underlies reward-driven learning and decision-making, will receive funding to study the fundamental question of what produces individual differences in behavior, a question often posed as nature versus nurture.

The award, established in 2004, challenges investigators at all career levels to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical, behavioral, or social science. The award to Witten is one of eight issued this year to scientists at universities and institutes across the nation.

Witten and her team will investigate what produces individual differences in personality and in responses to stress. They are motivated by the fact that identical twins, despite similar genes and upbringing, can have vast differences in personality, including in the development of mental illness. They suggest that nature, or one’s biological makeup, and nurture, or one’s environment, while both important, are insufficient to fully explain individual variability.

In this new study, the team will examine the development of individual differences from the perspective of learning, proposing that small differences in the initial conditions of the learning system can be amplified by positive feedback to ultimately produce large differences in outcomes. The team will study how the brain chemical dopamine plays a role in this reward-driven learning with the goal of explaining variation across individuals as well as in neuropsychiatric diseases. This work relates to ongoing collaborations with several other groups in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, including with Annegret Falkner, assistant professor of neuroscience; Jonathan Pillow, professor in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute; and Nathaniel Daw, Huo Professor in Computational and Theoretical Neuroscience and professor of neuroscience and psychology.

Witten earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Stanford University in 2008 and her Bachelor of Arts in physics at Princeton University in 2002, graduating magna cum laude with a certificate in biophysics. She was a postdoctoral scholar from 2008-12 in the laboratory of Karl Deisseroth at Stanford, and in 2012 she joined the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor, becoming an associate professor in 2018 and full professor in 2021.

Among her many honors and awards are a NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, a Pew Scholarship in the Biomedical Sciences, and a McKnight Scholars Award. She is an investigator in the NIH BRAIN Initiative and the Simons Collaboration on the Global Brain, among other collaborations.

The award is part of the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which today announced 85 new research grants to support highly innovative scientists who propose visionary and broadly impactful behavioral and biomedical research projects. The 85 awards (totaling approximately $187 million) are supported by the NIH Common Fund, as well as six other institutes, centers, and offices across NIH, beginning in 2023 for five years, pending the availability of funds.

“The HRHR program is a pillar for innovation here at NIH, providing support to transformational research, with advances in biomedical and behavioral science,” said Robert W. Eisinger, Ph.D., Acting Director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “These awards align with the Common Fund’s mandate to support science expected to have exceptionally high and broadly applicable impact.”

This award is supported by NIH grant number DP1 MH136573-01.