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2021 MacArthur Fellows include four molecular scientists

Virologist who tracks SARS-COV-2 and neuro-oncologist investigating pediatric cancer among this year’s 25 fellows

by Alla Katsnelson, special to C&EN
September 29, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 36


A virologist whose work on viral evolution has helped track the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, a biological physicist developing microscopy tools to peer at individual molecules inside living cells, a neuroscientist and neurooncologist studying pediatric brain cancer, and a microbiologist investigating the pathogenic and sometimes antibiotic-resistant bacteria Staphylococcus aureus are among the 25 recipients of this year’s MacArthur “genius grants”.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation bestows the $625,000 awards, paid out over 5 years, upon “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential,” according to the organization. The awards were announced Tuesday.

A photo of Trevor Bedford.
Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Trevor Bedford

Trevor Bedford, a computational virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, uses statistical and computational methods to study the evolution of viruses including Ebola, influenza, and SARS-CoV2, in order to track their transmission. He codeveloped an open-source platform called Nextstrain, which uses genomic data to surveil the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, and he is now expanding the platform for use with other viral pathogens.

“I’m immensely honored and moved to receive this recognition from the MacArthur Foundation,” Bedford says in a statement from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “It’s been a trying and tragic 20 months for the world, but the scientific response to the pandemic has been unparalleled. I’m proud to have been able to play a role.”

A photo of Ibrahim Cissé.
Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Ibrahim Cissé

Biological physicist Ibrahim Cissé of the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg, develops super-resolution microscopy techniques to track how single-cell-level interactions between biomolecules regulate gene expression. His work also aims to elucidate the physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms that determine how specialized membraneless regions within the cell called biomolecular condensates form.

In an email to C&EN, Cissé says it is “humbling and an incredible honor” to be in the ranks of this year’s fellows. “In many ways this is also a nod to the communities of scientists that we represent,” he adds, noting that biological physics sits at the crossroads of physics, biology, and chemistry. “For our students, it is so exciting to see our field recognized and supported by the MacArthur Foundation.”

A photo of Michelle Monje.
Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Michelle Monje

Neuroscientist and neuro-oncologist Michelle Monje at Stanford University studies how neurons and glial cells interact to shape neural circuitry. She uses basic biology as a springboard for investigating how those interactions are disrupted in brain cancers, driving cell growth; and how they are affected by cancer therapies, contributing to cognitive impairment.

In an email to C&EN, Monje notes she is “profoundly grateful” to have been chosen. “My research often brings me to the intersection of different fields,” she says. “This award gives me the flexibility to go beyond the borders of defined fields and approach childhood brain cancers from a different direction.”

New York University microbiologist Victor J. Torres investigates the pathogenesis of Staphylococcus aureus and other microbes. His lab’s aim, he says, is “identifying what is happening in that tug of war where the pathogen is trying to kill the host and the host is trying to kill the pathogen.” His work on how toxins produced by S. aureus interact with receptors in host cells points to new ways of treating infection, and he collaborates with Janssen Pharmaceuticals with the goal of bringing discoveries from the academic laboratory to patients.

A photo of Victor J. Torres.
Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Victor J. Torres

“I represent the field that we study—microbiology and bacteriology—but also a Latino doing science,” he says. Being selected “as a person that represents my culture as well as my science, my university, and my laboratory is extremely exciting and truly an honor.”

Other awardees in this year’s class include a geomorphologist, a civil rights activist, an adaptive technology designer, and an independent documentary film maker.


This story was updated on Oct. 1, 2021 to correct the description of Michelle Monje's work. Because of an editing error, an earlier version said that Monje uses basic biology to investigate how interactions between neurons and glial cells drive cell growth. It should have said that she uses basic biology to investigate how disruptions to interactions between neurons and glial cells in brain cells drive cell growth.


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