Fellow Wins Research Prize

Erez Lieberman-Aiden, a fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, has won the GE & Science Prize for Young Scientists for his dissertation research developing a new method of determining the three-dimensional structure of nuclear DNA.

As the grand-prize winner, Lieberman-Aiden will receive a $25,000 award in a ceremony in Stockholm on Friday. The prize, supported by GE Healthcare and the journal “Science,” recognizes graduate student research in molecular biology.

“Zoom!”—the essay Lieberman-Aiden submitted to the competition describing how the human genome is folded—was also published in the Dec. 2 issue of  “Science.”

Lieberman-Aiden explained that his work provides an answer to the question of how the human genome, which is capable of stretching to a length of two meters, can be packed into the nucleus of a cell several times thinner than a human hair.

As a student in Eric Lander’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lieberman-Aiden and collaborator Nynke van Berkum approached the problem by discovering which portions of the genome were in physical contact with each other.

“[We sought to find] which [pieces of the genome] are spatially adjacent or tend to be spatially adjacent,” he said. “By mapping those long range contacts which are parts of the genome that are far apart along the linear contour—but actually tend to be nearby in 3-D—we are able to find out a lot of structural information about how each genome is folded out.”

Lieberman-Aiden received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University before acquiring a Ph.D. from Harvard and MIT.

He first became curious about the inner workings of the cell while at Princeton, when physics professor Robert H. Austin broached the challenges that arise as a researcher.

“[Austin] was talking about how in biology everything was very, very difficult because you never observed directly what was going on, you always had to kind of indirectly reconstruct what must have just happened,” Lieberman-Aiden said.

He said that the idea of the uncertainty that surrounds the inner workings of a cell resonated with him and prompted his further research.

“What I realized from all this,” he said, “is that if I could pick through these problems about what is going on in cells, and somehow translate them in the language of DNA sequencing, we would be able to figure out a great deal.”

Despite his research, Lieberman-Aiden explained that many questions about DNA structure remain.

“There is still a lot of room for developing better understandings in cell biology,” he said.

Lieberman-Aiden said that he is most appreciative of the relationships and experiences that he has gained by working with his fellow researchers.

“It has been a long collaboration with really fantastic people, like my adviser Eric, Andreas Gnirke, who served as a mentor, and my principal collaborator, Nynke van Berkum,” he said. “And I think it is great to come out of the other end and realize that we made a contribution.”

—Staff writer Marina E. Watson can be reached at mwatson@college.harvard.edu.