Harvard Graduate Student Wins MIT Award

Erez Lieberman-Aiden has already invented the iShoe (footwear that can diagnose poor balance in the elderly) and the Hi-C (a method to decipher DNA’s three dimensional structure).

After winning the 2010 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize on Wednesday, he will now have an additional $30,000 to pour into his creative efforts.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Lieberman-Aiden, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology who also studies applied math at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The award, given annually to MIT seniors or graduate students, recognizes rising inventors who demonstrate remarkable creativity, a “portfolio of inventiveness,” and potential to mentor future inventors, according to the Lemelson-MIT Program’s executive director Joshua Schuler.

“The way [Liberman-Aiden] engages problems is very impressive, and his work in linguistics, with the iShoe, and Hi-C blew us out of the water,” said Schuler.

In addition to studying applied math, Lieberman-Aiden has also worked in the fields of evolutionary linguistics, biotechnology, and sensor technology.

His most recent invention is a genome imaging technology that can track billions of interactions between fragments of DNA.

Calling Hi-C a radical extension of existing technology, Lieberman-Aiden said that the whole project had started with a simple question: Wouldn’t it be great if researchers could probe the entire genome’s architecture at once?

“I think it surprised a lot of people that the answer turned out to be yes,” he said. “Maybe that’s the core of what inventors do. They ask, wouldn’t it be great if we could do something? And if the answer turns out to be yes, they try to figure out how to make it a reality.”

According to Schuler, the selection committee was also impressed with Lieberman-Aiden’s ability to engage people and to inspire youth.

In 2004, he started a program with mathematics and biology professor Martin A. Nowak to mentor undergraduates and graduate students at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics.

Since then, Lieberman-Aiden estimates that he has mentored and collaborated with over 30 students.

Lieberman-Aiden also mentors undergraduates in the Idea Translation Lab.

Daniel D.B. Koll ’10, who started working with Lieberman-Aiden last semester in the Lab to develop a navigation device using 3-D sound, described Lieberman-Aiden as “a really cool and creative guy to work with.”

The Lemelson Foundation awards the U.S.’s largest cash award for inventions, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

The Foundation also recognizes student inventors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and California Institute of Technology.

—Staff writer Helen X. Yang can be reached at hxyang@fas.harvard.edu.