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Harvard MCB Prof. Catherine Dulac Wins 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Harvard Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Catherine Dulac, who won a 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, researches the neurological bases of social behavior.
Harvard Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Catherine Dulac, who won a 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, researches the neurological bases of social behavior. By Daniel J. Kwon
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Catherine Dulac won a 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, one of the most prestigious and lucrative awards in the sciences, the prize’s foundation announced Thursday.

Dulac’s research focuses on the neurological bases of social behavior. The prize specifically recognizes her work examining the brain mechanisms behind parenting behaviors in males and females, which found that both sexes share common neural circuits that underlie both male and female-specific parenting behaviors.

Dulac told the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication, that she was “shocked” to hear the news and credited her collaborators for their contributions to the research.

“All of this work was thought through and performed in very close collaboration with grad students, undergraduates, and postdocs,” Dulac said. “You never think alone.”

She told the Gazette that the prize was gratifying because some scientists in her field had looked down on her research when she first started it.

“Most neuroscientists typically work on the cortex while we looked at [the] hypothalamus, the area of the brain that organizes social behaviors,” she said. “They viewed it as less.”

The Breakthrough Prizes are awarded annually in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics, and Mathematics. Winners receive $3 million each, making it the most lucrative science prize in the world. Sponsors include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Facebook CEO Mark E. Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan ’07.The award comes less than a year after the Society for Neuroscience awarded Dulac its most prestigious honor, the Ralph W. Gerard Prize, a lifetime achievement award recognizing groundbreaking research in the field.

MCB professor Venkatesh N. Murthy, who directs Harvard’s Center for Brain Science, said in a department press release that he is elated to see Dulac’s “ground breaking” work win the Breakthrough Prize.

“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,” Murthy said. “The results are revelatory.”

MCB chair Sean R. Eddy said in the release that he was also “overjoyed” to see Dulac’s contributions to neuroscience being awarded.

“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,” he said.

In recent years, several Harvard affiliates have won Breakthrough Prizes.

The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, led by Astronomy lecturer Shep S. Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, won the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for producing the first-ever image of a black hole. Chemistry and Chemical Biology professor Xiaowei Zhuang was awarded a 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for her work in super-resolution fluorescence microscopy.

The prize’s associated award ceremony — dubbed the “Oscars of Science” and typically attended by movie stars and tech entrepreneurs — has been delayed until March 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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