MCB faculty Catherine Dulac has been chosen as a recipient of the prestigious 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. She is one of four awardees in the Life Sciences category and the only Harvard professor to receive a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences this year.
Nicknamed “the Oscars of Science,” the Breakthrough Prizes are notable for their star-studded ceremonies—which are often attended by Hollywood actors and business tycoons, as well as scientists—and their generous prize money awards. Along with up to four prize winners in life sciences, the Breakthrough Prizes also include awards in Mathematics and in Fundamental Physics.
“Previous winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are my scientific heroes, so it is extremely humbling and inspiring to be associated with such an extraordinary group of scientists,” Dulac says. “Most importantly, this award recognizes the accomplishments of a remarkably talented and motivated group of students, postdocs and staff, and the essential contribution of my close collaborators, among which my dear Harvard colleagues Venki Murthy, Nao Uchida, Xiaowei Zhuang and Hopi Hoekstra. I am proud and delighted to belong to such a vibrant community of scholars, and very much welcome this bright spot of good news in otherwise highly challenging times.”
The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was established in 2013 and recognizes “transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.” Its sponsors include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, business magnate Pony Ma, venture capitalists Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe.
Nominations for the Breakthrough Prizes are crowdsourced and open to the public, but the awardees are chosen by committees composed of Breakthrough Prize laureates. These laureates in Life Sciences include Dulac’s collaborator Xiaowei Zhuang of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology department, researchers who pioneered gene editing and optogenetics, numerous HHMI investigators, and many distinguished leaders in biology and neuroscience.
The Life Sciences selection committee’s citation noted Dulac’s work “deconstructing the complex behavior of parenting to the level of cell-types and their wiring, and demonstrating that the neural circuits governing both male and female-specific parenting behaviors are present in both sexes.”
Dulac and the other newly minted Breakthrough Prize laureates will be honored with a ceremony in the fall of 2021. Details are yet to be determined.
In the meantime, MCB faculty are celebrating from a distance. “I am elated to see Catherine win the Breakthrough Prize!” says MCB faculty and Director of the Center for Brain Science Venkatesh Murthy. “Her work on the neurobiological bases of social behaviors has been ground breaking. She and her group have taken complex behaviors that are organized in hierarchies spanning minutes to days, and broken them down to manageable bits that can be studied with modern neurobiological tools. The results are revelatory. On behalf of the Center for Brain Science, I congratulate Catherine on this richly deserved recognition.”
MCB Department Chair Sean Eddy agrees. “I was really overjoyed when I heard this news,” he says. “It’s terrific to see Catherine’s many fundamental contributions to neuroscience get recognized with such a major prize! It’s well deserved—and just the beginning, with so much interesting work coming out of her lab on how innate mammalian social behavior is wired, especially innate differences between male and female behavior.”
Congratulations to Professor Dulac!