Fall 2017

Dear Friends and Alumni of MIT Biology,

The fall semester has begun and the department is buzzing with activity, with new faculty, new students, a new major — and a new communications effort. This long overdue newsletter will highlight some of the many things that have happened since our April 2016 newsletter, including faculty news and educational activities. We intend to have much more regular communications. Our new communications staff are hard at work redesigning our website and planning future communications, including our next newsletter that will be sent in December. Here we introduce our five (!) new faculty members who all started in 2017: Eliezer Calo, Sebastian Lourido, Stefani Spranger, Joey Davis, and Becky Lamason. We also include news of faculty promotions, awards, retirements, departures, and, sadly, deaths. Finally, we summarize some of our outreach efforts, including a new project that brings high school students to our department, and profile one of our undergrad alums. We hope that you enjoy the newsletter and that it stimulates your interest. As always, we welcome your feedback and questions at bioheadline@mit.edu.



Credit: Mandana Sassanfar

Credit: Mandana Sassanfar



New hires
Since January, five new assistant professors have joined the Department of Biology — two of whom also completed their doctoral work at MIT. First, we welcomed Eliezer Calo to Building 68 as the spring semester began. Six months later, Stefani Spranger arrived at the Koch Institute while Sebastian Lourido transitioned from Whitehead fellow to faculty member. Their expertise ranges from investigating genetic diseases and cancer immunotherapy to exploiting parasite vulnerabilities. Last monthJoey Davis and Becky Lamason began establishing their labs in Building 68, probing fundamental facets of cellular processes like molecular degradation and bacterial infections.

In July 2016, Dennis KimMike Laub, and Peter Reddien were promoted to full professors. In September 2016, Matthew Vander Heiden was selected as an HHMI Faculty Scholar, and this past June he was named one of seven newly-tenured School of Science faculty members.

William (Chip) Quinn and JoAnne Stubbe retired in June and August of 2016, respectively. Leona Samson retired last month.  

This past January, Hidde Ploegh moved to Boston Children’s Hospital. In July, Wendy Gilbert moved to Yale University as associate professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry. 

Angelika Amon was elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) for 2017.

Steve Bell was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for 2017.

Eric Lander received the 2016-2017 James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award. During the annual Killian Lecture, he reflected on his career journey as well as his numerous contributions to human genomics, teaching, and science policy. Lander was also elected as a Fellow of the AACR Academy, class of 2016.

Gene-Wei Li was named a Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences, and received the 2017 Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research. He was also chosen as a Searle Scholar and Sloan Research Fellow. 

Aviv Regev received the 2017 International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB) Innovator Award, after being elected to the ISCB class of 2016.

David Sabatini was elected to the NAS for his research concerning a key cellular regulatory metabolic pathway called mTOR.

Robert Weinberg received the Salk Institute Medal for Research Excellence, and became the 13th recipient of the annual Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). 

Jing-Ke Weng received a Beckman Young Investigator Award, and earned an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Computational & Evolutionary Molecular Biology.


Credit: Ceal Capistrano

Credit: Donna Coveney

We are sad to report the passing of two of our beloved faculty members. 

Susan Lindquist died in October 2016 at the age of 67. She joined the department in 2001 as the first female director of the Whitehead Institute, and studied prions and diseases of protein folding. 

Gene Brown died in August 2017 at the age of 91. He joined the department in 1954, served MIT as department head and dean of the School of Science, and was well known for his enthusiasm for and dedication to undergraduate teaching.



Bonnie Lee Whang retired in July after ten years as the coordinator for MIT’s interdepartmental graduate program in microbiology. She has been succeeded by Susan Kahn, who previously served as the assistant director of graduate student affairs at Boston University.

Ron Berry, former senior development officer for the Department of Biology, left MIT in August after two years to serve as senior associate of donor relations at Harvard Management Company. 

Vivian Siegel joined the department in August 2016, tasked with overseeing the department’s communications efforts, while Raleigh McElvery joined as the communications coordinator this past August.


Credit: Mandana Sassanfar 

2017 Biograds

We are pleased to welcome our newest cohort of biology students! Of the 33 first years (30 pictured here), four previously participated in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP).  In addition, two students have joined the MIT-WHOI Joint Graduate Program, six have joined the Computational and Systems Biology Graduate Program, and six have joined the Microbiology Graduate Program.


MIT Summer Research Programs nurture tomorrow's scientists

MSRP wrapped up yet another successful summer with a poster session, celebrating the culmination of ten weeks of research. Of the 80 undergraduate students who presented their work, nearly half were jointly sponsored by the Department of Biology and the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences.   

The department is grateful to Mike Gould and Sara Moss for endowed support for the program; and to Walter Herlihy and Nancy LeGendre for their generous gift that helped support several students this year.


Credit: Mandana Sassanfar 

Priming the Pump: New Program Provides Minority High School Students With Hands-On Research Experience In The World's Leading Research Labs

This summer, Health Resources in Action partnered with MIT and the Boston Private Industry Council to introduce an NIH-funded pilot program, supporting high school students interested in biomedical research. Each student received an unknown strain of bacteria isolated from the Charles River, and learned to characterize their specimen using a number of molecular biology and microbiology techniques.


Credit: Christopher Harting

Departments of Biology and Chemistry introduce new interdisciplinary major

A new interdepartmental major is now available, combining Biochemistry and Chemical Biology. Known as 5-7 (Chemistry and Biology), this course of study permits students to be members of both departments — with one academic advisor from each — and tailor their experience to reflect the aspects of these subjects they find most compelling. The program prepares them for careers in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, as well as professions in medicine and related health professions. The Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biology provides a strong foundation for further graduate study in biochemistry, molecular biology, and chemical biology. 


Credit: Justin Knight 

A rose by any other name would smell as yeast

Manipulating yeast cells is an old idea. And yet, ten years ago, when Emily Greenhagen ’05 first started out, fermenting was a labor-intensive process done by hand. Today, as director of fermentation engineering at Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based synthetic biology company, Greenhagen uses robots to automate this endeavor — turning microbes into customizable factories that rapidly produce products ranging from pesticides to perfumes.


Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares 

MIT receives $7.5 million to enhance structural biology research

Thanks to a $2.5 million gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation and an anonymous donation of $5 million, the MIT.nano facility will soon include a state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-Em) center. Cryo-EM allows researchers to examine protein structures in many different conformations to clarify their mechanisms of action, which could ultimately aid drug development and improve chemotherapy.


Credit: Ron Berry 

Alan Grossman Shares Lessons Learned from His Lifesaving Gift

Department Head, Alan Grossman, offered a personal perspective on organ and tissue donation and transplantation at a recent MIT Club of Boston event — bringing together dozens of alumni and friends one rainy night this past spring. Diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis in 2004, Grossman received a life-saving heart transplant two years later, and in the decade since he has rebuilt his laboratory and research efforts.