A New Gig in the Science World

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll meet the new president and chief executive of a foundation that backs stem cell research. We’ll also get details on a $5 million fine in a New Jersey tax break scandal.

Jennifer Raab heard about the space launch while being interviewed for a job at the New York Stem Cell Foundation that unexpectedly turned emotional.

Valentina Fossati, a scientist with the foundation, mentioned that test tubes would be part of the payload on a private mission to the International Space Station. The test tubes would contain three-dimensional models of brain tissue that scientists at the foundation had made from stem cells. Fossati said the scientists hoped to learn whether space was the place to study neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Then Fossati said that she had M.S. herself.

“That was very moving,” Raab said, “to realize that someone had turned her own challenges into working on solving a problem for the general population.”

Raab was hired as president and chief executive of the foundation. The space mission was launched on her third day on the job. The project, conducted in collaboration with other research institutions, will study the cells when they are brought back to earth. The researchers will look for changes brought on by microgravity in space and whether such changes could be applied to work on diseases like Parkinson’s or M.S.

The job has taken Raab from the East 60s, where she worked for 22 years as the president of Hunter College, to the West 50s, where a number of life sciences organizations have moved in a search for space in buildings with large footprints that can accommodate their laboratories.

“There’s no secret that there’s a lot of empty space, given the change in work habits,” she said. “Laboratories are places people need to be. There are obviously things you can do virtually, but scientists love to be in labs looking in their microscopes and working together. Of the many professions where people like to be present, this is one.”

The foundation was born of frustration in the early 2000s — frustration that research for potential cures for Type 1 diabetes was falling behind. Susan Solomon, who had been a lawyer and a management consultant, founded the organization with Mary Elizabeth Bunzel. Solomon’s teenage son had Type 1 diabetes, and she wanted to speed work on possible breakthroughs.

At the time, President George W. Bush had limited research on embryonic stem cells using federal money in response to objections from social conservatives. Solomon, who died in 2022, wanted to underwrite research with privately raised money. The foundation says that it has invested more than $450 million in research in the 19 years since it began.

Raab, who retired from Hunter last summer, is not a scientist — she has a law degree from Harvard and a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton.

She amassed a record as a fund-raiser at Hunter, which took in more than $531 million in her years there to increase student scholarships and endow faculty chairs, among other things. She also said that science was a “passion” and said Hunter had raised $65 million for space in a Weill Cornell Medical College building.

But Raab’s management style was sometimes criticized at Hunter; in 2013 an assistant dean described “personal attacks and a culture of fear and mistrust.” The dean was leaving, as were three senior administrators.

And in January of last year, Hunter agreed to pay $200,000 and a former psychology professor agreed to pay $375,000 to settle a federal civil fraud case involving allegations that the professor — who was the director of Hunter’s Center for H.I.V. Educational Studies — had misused grant money for personal travel, according to the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Raab called one aspect of research at the foundation “tech-bio,” which she said was not biotech. Tech-bio involves a partnership with Google to apply algorithms “to drill down and see what you could not see with your eye” in a controlled sampling of cells — which had Parkinson’s disease, which were healthy and which had developed a different variation of Parkinson’s.

“This really is about a better future,” she said.


Weather

Expect a cloudy day with temperatures in the low 40s. At night, it will be mostly cloudy with temperatures in the mid-30s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Feb. 9 (Lunar New Year’s Eve).



Holtec International is a New Jersey-based energy company whose projects include decommissioning several nuclear power plants, among them the Indian Point facility on the Hudson River north of New York City.

On Tuesday, Holtec agreed to pay a $5 million penalty following a criminal investigation into tax breaks that it had been awarded. The fine, announced by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, allowed Holtec to avoid criminal prosecution.

George Norcross III, a Democrat who is powerful — and feared — in New Jersey is on the board of Holtec. He has long played an influential role in New Jersey politics even though he has never held elected office. But his power has waned lately in the wake of embarrassing losses, including the defeat of Stephen Sweeney, who had been the president of the State Senate, in 2021. Sweeney lost his seat to Edward Durr, a truck driver who was a first-time candidate.

The agreement headed off criminal prosecution related to a 2018 application for $1 million in tax breaks that went to Holtec and a second company, Singh Real Estate Enterprises, which was linked to Holtec’s founder, Krishna Singh.

“We are sending a clear message: No matter how big and powerful you are, if you lie to the state for financial gain, we will hold you accountable — period,” the New Jersey attorney general, Matthew Platkin, said in a statement.

Holtec, in a statement, denied “any misconduct.” Kelly Trice, the president of a Holtec unit, called the dispute “unfortunate” and said that the company wanted to “put it behind us and redouble our focus on the important clean energy work of our New Jersey employees.”

A spokesman for Norcross had no comment about the $5 million fine but noted that Norcross had never held an ownership stake in Holtec and that the state had lost legal challenges after it sought to withhold certain Holtec tax breaks.

Holtec was awarded $260 million in tax credits in 2014 under a program that Gov. Philip Murphy, a Democrat, had criticized while campaigning in 2017. The inquiry into the tax-benefit package — implemented by Murphy’s predecessor, Chris Christie, a Republican — came to define Murphy’s early years in office.


METROPOLITAN diary

Dear Diary:

I bought the book “Lessons in Chemistry” and gave it to my daughter. A week later, she called, and we arranged to meet near her apartment on Second Avenue in the 70s so she could give the book to me.

As she handed it over, she told me why she was returning it so soon.

“I just couldn’t get into it,” she said. “The beginning was too slow.”