Department News



This year’s MCB award winners reflect the creativity, collaboration, and community that makes the department a rewarding place for students, postdoctoral fellows and professors. The awards were presented at the MCB annual retreat on September 17th.

The Meselson Prize

The Meselson Prize honors the beauty of science, and is awarded to a creative and significant experiment performed at MCB. The Meselson Prize is inspired by the Meselson-Stahl experiment, which beautifully demonstrated that DNA is replicated by a semi conservative mechanism. The experiment is honored not only for the solid evidence it provided to prove the researchers’ theory, but also for the fact that it would have provided solid evidence for whichever theory had been correct.

This year’s winner is postdoctoral fellow James Gagnon from the Schier lab, who was honored for the development of GESTALT (Genome editing of synthetic target arrays for lineage tracing) technique.

Gagnon’s beautiful experiment used CRISPR mediated mutation to answer the classic developmental biology question of how does an assembly of pluripotent cells form an organism. James introduced cas9 and a small set of guide RNAs in to an early zebrafish embryo that contained a large CRISPR mutable molecular barcode. As the cells in the early embryo divided into daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter cells, the molecular barcode is serially and irreversibly modified creating a unique pattern of inherited changes. Simply by sequencing the barcodes recovered in different adult tissue and determining the order of changes, he was able to infer the cell lineage of most cells in each tissue. Among the results is the finding that relatively few founder cells account for the majority of cells in each adult tissue. The work has been recently published in Science.

Matthew Meselson (l) and James Gagnon

The Bjorkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize

The Bjorkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize for Collaboration honors Pamela Bjorkman, Jack Strominger and Don Wiley, who collaborated to solve the structure of an MHC protein and antigen peptides. Pam Bjorkman was a graduate student at Harvard and is now a professor at Caltech, Don Wiley was a professor at Harvard until his death in 2001, and Jack Strominger has been a professor at Harvard since 1968. The fruits of their collaboration transformed molecular immunology by determining how a single MHC molecule could bind to so many different peptides, thereby providing a molecular explanation for cellular immunity and autoimmune diseases.

This year, MCB awards the Bjorkman-Strominger-Wiley Prize for collaboration to Florian Engert and Alex Schier in recognition of their 10-year collaboration, joining the molecular and genetic expertise of the Schier lab with the physics, engineering, and imaging expertise of the Engert lab. According to the prize’s selection committee, “…this collaboration] represents a true partnership between groups with complementary skills, backgrounds and interests. In other words, neither lab alone could have made the discoveries without the other.”

Alex Schier (l) and Florian Engert

Doty-Losick Prize for Exceptional Service

The Doty-Losick Prize for Exceptional Service, given to MCB members who display exemplary community service, honors Harvard biology professors Paul Doty and Richard Losick. Both professors had broad and sustained effect on the Harvard community beyond MCB, and are widely praised for their mentorship of students and colleagues.

This year’s winner is Tessa Montague of the Schier lab for her outstanding commitment to scientific outreach. She has dedicated herself to bringing science to young students, including working as a teaching fellow for the Life Sciences Outreach spring program, running a zebrafish development lab for visiting middle school students from Brooklyn, and working as a mentor for the Summer Research Opportunities at Harvard (SROH) program. She has also designed and run zebrafish labs for groups of visiting students with autism.

“Tessa lights up when she talks about introducing science to students who might not have the chance to explore it otherwise,” read one of Montague’s nomination letters. “She puts a tremendous amount of effort and time, on top of her commitment to her own PhD education, to ensure that not only those born to scientist parents or in wealthy neighborhoods experience the beauty of scientific discovery.”

Craig Hunter (l) and Tessa Montague

Ernie Peralta Award

The winner of this year’s Ernie Peralta award is Jun-Han Su, a third year graduate student from the MCO program working in Xiaowei Zhuang’s laboratory. The Peralta award is given to the entering third year student with the best dissertation proposal.

Jun-Han Su was described by his PhD advisor and by members of his qualifying exam committee as an exceptional student and a creative experimentalist with a strong passion for scientific inquiry into nuclear organization and the cellular biophysics of chromosomes. Jun-Han proposes to study the organization and dynamics of chromatin compartments using advanced imaging methods. He plans to explore the propagation of chromosome conformations throughout cell generations, their interactions with other nuclear structures, and their dynamics in live cells.

Jun-Han has already co-authored two important publications on this topic in Science and Scientific Reports that opened up several new areas which he plans to pursue. Members of Jun-Han’s thesis committee express full confidence that “his PhD work will provide some very interesting and provocative biological results.”

Jun-Han Su (l) and Catherine Dulac

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!