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MIT student inventor honored for transformative work in genomics and linguistics

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (March 3, 2010) A scientific "Renaissance man" whose work spans the fields of mathematics, linguistics, biotechnology and polymer physics, Erez Lieberman-Aiden, graduate student at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, has been named the winner of the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Lieberman-Aiden, one of four 2010 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize winners announced today, was selected for the breadth and depth of his innovations.

"This year's winners from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shine light on the significance of collegiate invention. They have the ability to transform seemingly implausible ideas into reality and are the true entrepreneurial leaders of their generation," states Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. "The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner, Erez Lieberman-Aiden, demonstrates how persistence, creativity and focus can lead to enormous strides in innovation."

Mapping the Human Genome in 3-D

Lieberman-Aiden's most recent invention is the "Hi-C" method for three-dimensional genome sequencing. It has been hailed as a revolutionary technology that will enable an entirely new understanding of cell state, genetic regulation and disease. Developed together with postdoctoral student Nynke van Berkum of UMass Medical School, and their advisors Eric Lander and Job Dekker, Hi-C makes it possible to create global, three-dimensional portraits of whole genomes as they fold. Three dimensional genome sequencing is a major advance in solving the mystery of how the human genome which is two meters and three billion chemical letters long fits into the tiny nucleus of a cell.

Applied to the human genome, the technology enabled Lieberman-Aiden, van Berkum and their team to make two significant discoveries. First, they found that the genome is organized into separate active and inactive compartments; chromosomes weave in and out of these compartments, turning the individual genes along their length on and off. When they examined this process more closely, they found evidence that the genome adapts into a never-before-seen state called a fractal globule. This allows cells to pack DNA extraordinarily tightly without knotting, and to easily access genes when the information they contain is needed.

Technological, Mathematical, and Linguistic Breakthroughs

Lieberman-Aiden's pioneering work on genome sequencing is the latest in a long line of innovations. In addition to three-dimensional genome sequencing, he also invented the iShoe, a sensor-laden shoe insole that enables early diagnosis and rehabilitation of deteriorating balance for the elderly. iShoe technology can help reduce the risk of broken hips due to falling, which often results in death for senior citizens. Lieberman-Aiden and his team are currently engaged in clinical trials of the iShoe technology.

Lieberman-Aiden and Harvard mathematics professor Martin Nowak developed evolutionary graph theory, a field which lies at the interface between graph theory, mathematics and evolutionary biology. The theory provides a quantitative language to describe replication of entities such as organisms or ideas along networks, and can be applied to a variety of fields ranging from cancer biology to social networks.

Working with Jean-Baptiste Michel, Lieberman-Aiden also made major contributions to the study of the evolution of language. The duo demonstrated that languages follow the laws of natural selection in predictable ways, leading to specific equations that describe and predict how irregular verbs are disappearing from the English language and gradually transforming into regular verbs. They showed that, like radioactive atoms, irregular verbs have a half-life and that the half-life of a verb is proportional to the square root of its frequency.

Creative Networks Drive Success

Mentorship drives much of Lieberman-Aiden's success and innovative cross-disciplinary career. He stresses the importance of supportive mentors and the need for freedom to explore one's passions. "One of the most powerful things a mentor can do is to point you to things you're good at and give you productive ways to use those skills; it's also crucial that they encourage you to seek out areas outside of your comfort zone," Lieberman-Aiden claims. "One of the greatest lessons I apply to my work and share with my own mentees is that from big mistakes, you learn the ingredients for big successes."

Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prizes

In addition to Lieberman-Aiden's pioneering work, the other winners of the annual $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize will be announced today at their respective universities:

  • Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize winner Heather Agnew contributed to the development of an innovative technique that creates inexpensive, stable, highly reliable biochemical compounds that have the potential to replace antibodies used in many standard diagnostic tests.
  • Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize winner Jonathan Naber and the Illini Prosthetics Team developed an affordable, durable, extremely functional prosthetic arm for people in underdeveloped countries, made from recycled materials.
  • Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize winner Kayvan Rafiee developed a new method for manufacturing and using graphene, an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged like a nanoscale chain-link fence, to store hydrogen at room temperature opening the door to better and safer on-board fuel storage systems for hydrogen vehicles.


Contact: Julie Staadecker
Lemelson-MIT Program

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