Hellman Fellows Program and UC announce $125 million commitment to faculty research

Photo of Rebecca Covarrubias

Rebecca Covarrubias, associate professor of psychology, said support she received from the Hellman Fellows Program in 2017 funded community-based research on the college-transition experiences of low-income, Latinx first-generation-to-college high school students. The fellowship allowed her to offer stipends to high school student participants, and it supported a team of undergraduate student researchers.

Photo of Mark Massoud
“The Hellman Fellowship launched the research I conducted for a number of articles and a book," said Mark Massoud, associate professor of politics and director of the Legal Studies program. "It provided me with space and, most importantly, with confidence that my project was feasible."

The Hellman Fellows Program and the University of California announced today (June 23) a plan to permanently support the Hellman Fellows Program on all 10 campuses in the UC system. With the establishment of this endowment, the Hellman Fellows Program will have committed a total of $125 million to support research for outstanding early-career faculty at all 10 UC campuses. The endowment will provide protected streams of funding in perpetuity through the creation of the Society of Hellman Fellows.

The gift will fund endowments at each campus, with the universities each administering the program. Fellowships are open to a broad range of academic disciplines across all fields, including the arts, humanities, social sciences, and STEM. Fellowships range from $10,000 to $50,000, and many former fellows have gone on to become award-winning researchers, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipients, and department chairs.

"The Hellman Fellows Program has been transformational for scholars at UC Santa Cruz, because it provides support at a critical time on the way to tenure, allowing faculty to do seed projects to win larger grants or to travel to archives or field sites to complete research for major projects," said Herbie Lee, vice provost for academic affairs, noting that nearly 75 fellows have received support since 2011. "The Hellman family has had a lasting impact on this campus, and this endowment carries that legacy forward. It's a tremendous gift."

By creating endowments at each UC location, the Hellman Fellows Program gives flexibility to each campus in how the awards are directed and managed, building on the program’s tradition of local control while honoring the intent of the founders. UCSC, like many campuses, will seek additional or matching gifts that will allow the campus to expand the program and reach more early-career faculty members over time.

“My parents, Warren and Chris Hellman, used to say that creating the Hellman Fellows Program was one of the best things our family ever did,” said Frances Hellman, president of the Hellman Fellows Fund. “Having had the opportunity to support over 1,900 faculty over the years, I enthusiastically agree. Their discoveries, commitment to their work, and great potential continues to inspire us year after year. We are thrilled to be carrying on our father’s legacy by ensuring that the Hellman Fellows Program can exist in perpetuity throughout the University of California system.”

Since its founding in 1995, the Hellman Fellows Program has provided $125 million to fund research fellowships to early-career faculty across the UC system. With this generous new gift, the program will be able to continue in perpetuity across all campuses of the world-renowned public research institution.

“With dwindling federal funding and a critical need for UC research, especially during the coronavirus era, this generous gift could not come at a better time,” said UC President Janet Napolitano. “The incredible public spirit of the Hellman Fellows Program will support yet another generation of outstanding scholars and scientists whose careers, achievements, and breakthrough research will benefit California and the world. We will be forever grateful to the Hellman family for this enduring, impactful program.”

Federal funding for academic research has been flat or declining for the past decade, and for the fourth straight year the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to science research. Funding for academic research is especially critical now to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related economic and social concerns.

In addition to their impactful research in a wide range of fields, it is noteworthy that at least 125 former Hellman fellows are currently involved in groundbreaking COVID-19 related research. Former award recipients include engineers working to convert sleep apnea machines into ventilators, epidemiologists studying the origins and spread of the disease, statisticians designing optimal surveillance approaches to help curtail the spread of the virus, and scientists examining societal changes in violence due to the progression of the coronavirus.

The Hellman Fellows Fund was established by the Hellman family in 1995 to fund the research of promising assistant professors who showed capacity for great distinction in their chosen fields but needed support to begin to reach those goals. The impetus for the program came when Frances Hellman, a junior faculty member at UC San Diego, experienced first-hand the challenges that faculty can experience early in their careers before their research can attract external support.

The program made its first awards to a handful of faculty at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley. The program grew organically over the years to include all 10 UC campuses and four private institutions.

At UC Santa Cruz, past recipients of Hellman fellowships include Mark Massoud, an expert in the rule of law, former Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, and the 2022 Evans-Pritchard lecturer at Oxford University.

“The Hellman Fellowship launched the research I conducted for a number of articles and a book," said Massoud, associate professor of politics and director of the Legal Studies program. "It provided me with space and, most importantly, with confidence that my project was feasible. I am grateful to the Hellmans for endowing this program on all 10 University of California campuses. It is great to know that their support of early career scholars will continue.”

Additional former fellows include coastal ecologist Eric Palkovacs; social and cultural psychologist Rebecca Covarrubias; and Sylvanna Falcón, a professor of Latin American Studies, director of the Research Center for the Americas, and founder of the UCSC Human Rights Lab.

Palkovacs, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and associate director of the Fisheries Collaborative Program, said his 2015 fellowship came at a critical point in his career.

"It allowed me to maximize the value of my start-up funding and transition a major aspect of my research program to NSF funding, which in turn was a critical step towards earning tenure," he said. "Since receiving the award, I have served on the selection committee at UC Santa Cruz as a way to give back to the program that supported me during this critical time.”

Covarrubias, associate professor of psychology and faculty director of the Student Success Equity Research Center, expressed gratitude for the support she received in 2017, which funded a community-based longitudinal research project aimed at understanding the college-transition experiences of low-income, Latinx first-generation-to-college high school students.

"We offered important stipends for high school students to engage in the research and supported a team of undergraduate students to visit the local high schools," she said. "This project also gave us a strong foundation to secure more grant monies to fund other elements of the project.”