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Chemical Biologist Is First Woman to Win Lemelson-MIT Prize

Courtesy of Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi is used to standing out in a crowd of scientists. In graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, she was the only woman in the lab where she worked. Years later, when she joined the faculty, she was one of just three women in the chemistry department. Yesterday she became the first woman to receive the Lemelson-MIT Prize.

At 43, Bertozzi is among the youngest scientists to receive the $500,000 prize, founded in 1994 to recognize mid-career inventors. But she's already notched a lifetime of achievements. She won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship at age 32 and was awarded tenure a year later, just 3 years after joining the Berkeley chemistry faculty. The following year she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and at the ripe old age of 38 she was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Last year she and David Rabuka, a former graduate student, founded Redwood Bioscience. The biotech company hopes to develop new drugs based on one of her favorite inventions—a genetically-encoded aldehyde tag. The technology allows scientists to chemically modify existing protein-based drugs to give them new properties to fight other diseases. Protein drugs are currently used to treat arthritis, anemia, and immuno-suppression in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, but they have the potential to treat many more ailments. The small Burlingame, California–company has already attracted support from private investors and garnered a $1 million National Institutes of Health Challenge Grant, made possible by NIH's stimulus funding.

Another well-known invention is a process called bioorthogonal chemical reactions, which can be used to label proteins, sugars, and other molecules in living cells and animals without damaging the cells. It's helped Bertozzi capture the first images of glycoproteins, proteins coated with sugars that play a key role in diseases such as cancer. She's also created artificial bone materials, targets for tuberculosis therapy, cell microarray platforms, and a cell nanoinjector, a device used to inject molecules into living cells.

Bertozzi calls herself an "entrepreneurial academician." She notes that stories about academic scientists "being stigmatized because they were contaminating their effort with their industrial pursuits … are historical to my generation." Unfortunately, she says that another stigma—against women advancing into the upper realms of academic science—remains a barrier. "Since I was a kid, I have known that I was in a minority and that, if you find yourself in a position representing women, there's a certain obligation to give back, certainly in the physical sciences."

She tackles the problem by working to educate both genders. "In some ways, I think that having a female authority figure may have a bigger impact on men," she says of the male scientists who work for her. "When they leave my lab to start their own careers, I hope that being trained by a woman leaves them feeling that men and women are equal in the lab."

Bertozzi will receive the award later this month during the Lemelson-MIT annual festival, "EurekaFest," on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus.