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Emily Balskus Becomes First Female Harvard Scientist to Win Waterman Award

Chemistry and Chemical Biology Professor Emily P. Balskus works out of the Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory.
Chemistry and Chemical Biology Professor Emily P. Balskus works out of the Mallinckrodt Chemical Laboratory. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Meera S. Nair, Crimson Staff Writer

The National Science Foundation named Chemistry and Chemical Biology Professor Emily P. Balskus one of two recipients of the 2020 Alan T. Waterman Award earlier this month.

The Waterman Award recognizes researchers under age 40 “who demonstrate exceptional individual achievements in scientific or engineering research in NSF-supported fields,” according to the NSF. Awardees each receive 1 million dollars to support research in their field.

Balskus — whose research focuses on the chemical underpinnings of microbial biology — is the first female scientist from Harvard, and one of six Harvard scientists in total, who have received the Waterman Award since its inception in 1975. In an interview, she described her work as an exploration of “how nature makes molecules.”

“I was trained, you might say very classically, in organic chemistry as a graduate student,” Balskus said. “Somewhere along the way in grad school, I got very interested in understanding how microbes made natural products.”

“I like to think about the chemistry occurring in nature and recognize reactions that synthetic chemists can't easily do in a lab, from which we can see opportunities that exist in nature for us to make molecules in a more efficient or sustainable way,” she added.

In one recent project, Balskus and her team found that the bacterial-produced toxin colibactin causes DNA damage, which may contribute to colorectal cancer. The finding’s potential applications in medicine made the project especially rewarding, she said.

“I think it's really neat that we as humans are really a collective of organisms, and we've sort of been ignoring a huge part of ourselves,” Balskus said. “One way I hope that our work will impact medicine is that I think we and others in the field have really started to gain some evidence that it may be possible to treat or prevent human disease by actually targeting the microbiome with small molecule drugs.”

NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan said in a press release that Balskus and this year’s other awardee — John O. Dabiri, a California Institute of Technology aeronautical engineer — are “innovators who are creatively addressing some of the most challenging scientific questions.”

“Emily Balskus has opened up novel ways to explore and exploit the chemistry and biology of microbes that live in our bodies and how they are linked to our health,” Panchanathan said. “And we’re already seeing the potential impact.”

Catherine L. Drennan, a professor at MIT and one of Balskus’s collaborators, said Balskus brings a “very curious and enthusiastic” approach to research.

“To me, that is one of the very best things that a scientist can be,” Drennan said. “Because when you're asking good questions, you're really going after understanding things and you're not caught up with your own personal ego and your own personal theories.”

Drennan also described Balskus as a “card-carrying organic chemist” within the field of biology who “seamlessly combines the two disciplines.”

“It's just chemical biology done in the most beautiful way, and there are few people who do it as well as she does,” Drennan said. “She's just incredibly smart, but she's also a very kind and generous collaborator, and so she's able to put together a team of amazing scientists and raise up everyone's science all around her.”

Eric N. Jacobsen, a Harvard Chemistry and Chemical Biology Professor and Balskus’s former research advisor, said Balskus has been “serious, fearless, and eager to venture into new areas” since her time as a graduate student in his lab. He added that, in her role as a professor, she is “a wonderful departmental citizen.”

“She is an inspired and dedicated teacher and mentor, working tirelessly in support of our undergraduate and graduate students,” Jacobsen wrote in an emailed statement.

“What can I say? I feel very proud and lucky to have her as a colleague,” Jacobsen added.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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