As part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) High Risk, High Reward Research Program, Victor M. Acosta has received the 2020 Director’s New Innovator Award. Acosta is an assistant professor of physics and a member of the UNM Center for High Technology Materials (CHTM). His project, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Microscope Based on Diamond Quantum Sensorsseeks to use qubits (the logical elements in a quantum computer) to identify and count molecules with a resolution at the level of single biological cells.

“I feel fortunate and very lucky to have received this award,” Acosta says. “I am impressed with NIH's willingness to take a chance on our "crazy" proposal to use qubits as sensitive detectors of small molecules in biological samples. I am especially grateful that I currently get to work on this project every day with our brilliant postdoc, Dr. Janis Smits."

Victor Acosta
Assistant Professor Victor Acosta

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program catalyzes scientific discovery by supporting research proposals that, due to their inherent risk, may struggle in the traditional peer-review process despite their transformative potential. Program applicants are encouraged to think “outside the box” and to pursue trailblazing ideas in any area of research relevant to the NIH’s mission to advance knowledge and enhance health.

“The breadth of innovative science put forth by the 2020 cohort of early career and seasoned investigators is impressive and inspiring," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “I am confident that their work will propel biomedical and behavioral research and lead to improvements in human health.”

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program is part of the NIH Common Fund, which oversees programs that pursue major opportunities and gaps throughout the research enterprise that are of great importance to NIH and require collaboration across the agency to succeed. The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, established in 2007, supports unusually innovative research from early career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant. Acosta is one of 53 recipients this year.

Acosta received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Hewlett-Packard Labs before coming to UNM in 2015. Since his arrival, he has received numerous awards including the Beckman Young Investigator Award, the 2018 NIH Trailblazer Award for New and Early Stage Investigators, and a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award. His quantum nanophotonics and biosensing lab continues to publish groundbreaking findings about quantum sensors and magnetic resonance spectroscopy with the hope that tools he and his team develop will have a substantial impact on analytical biochemistry and single-cell biology.

Acosta’s award from NIH will provide $2.1 million over 5 years. “The grant will support several UNM graduate students and postdocs who will explore this new interface between quantum science, chemical imaging, and biophysics," he says.

NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. More information on the New Innovator Award and other High Risk, High Reward Awardees can be found on the NIH website