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Baker of biology wins Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award

Associate Professor of Biology Tania Baker has won the 1999 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award for her "extraordinary record in research, teaching and service to the MIT community."

The announcement was made at the faculty meeting last Wednesday by the head of the Edgerton Award Committee, Professor Karen R. Polenske of urban studies and planning. Professor Polenske described Professor Baker as "first and foremost a superb scientist" whose achievements have been "outstanding, in all three areas." The Edgerton Award was established in 1982 to honor a junior faculty member each year.

"I was very excited to hear my work associated with this award," said Professor Baker. "The last seven years have really flown by, and I want to sincerely thank all my students, associates and colleagues who have made MIT such an exciting place to work."

Professor Baker, a 1983 graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, earned the PhD in biochemistry from Stanford in 1988. Named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher in 1994, she received the 1998 Schering-Plough Scientific Achievement Award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The award is presented to a young scientist who has made significant contributions in the field.

Professor Baker's research has played an important role in understanding DNA replication and the molecular processes involved in DNA rearrangements. DNA rearrangements of the class studied in Professor Baker's lab include those involved in the spread of antibiotic resistance genes in bacteria, development of the immune system, and infection by HIV and other viruses.

"Almost everything cells do is catalyzed by proteins," she said. "These proteins are often organized into amazing little machines that tightly coordinate the biological reactions.

"In my lab, what we really like to do is take apart these little machines and figure out how they work. It's a really good day when we succeed in designing an experiment that reveals concrete information about how these protein machines are designed and regulated. This type of insight often gives hints into how the DNA rearrangements are controlled in the cell."

The Edgerton Committee cited Professor Baker for her dedication to teaching graduates and undergraduates, particularly her role in creating 7.28, an upper-level undergraduate elective in molecular biology which attracted more than 100 students in its first year.

She has served on several key committees in the biology department, including the Structural Biology Search Committee, the Advisory Committee to the head of the department and the Graduate Committee. She played a major role in organizing and presenting a training session for graduate students on "Ethics and Responsible Conduct in Research."

Professor Baker serves on the editorial boards of two prestigious journals in her field, an unusual distinction for a junior faculty member. She also is an ad hoc reviewer on an NIH study section and the co-organizer for two major scientific meetings, one on transposition and other genome rearrangements and the other on molecular genetics of bacteria and phages.

Besides Professor Polenske, members of the committee (which received 13 nominations for the 1999 award) were Professors Peter S. Kim of biology, Anthony T. Patera of mechanical engineering and Stephen J. Tapscott of literature.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 28).

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