The David and Lucile Packard Foundation has announced that Ankur Jain, Whitehead Institute member and assistant professor of biology at MIT, has been named a Packard Fellow for Science and Engineering. The Packard Foundation Fellowships are one of the most prestigious and well-funded non-governmental awards for early-career scientists.
Each year, the foundation invites 50 university presidents to nominate two early-career professors each from their institutions; from those 100 nominees, an advisory panel of distinguished scientists and engineers select the fellows, who receive individual grants of $875,000 over five years. The 2019 class comprises 22 fellows.
“We are extraordinarily pleased that Ankur has received such clear and substantive affirmation of his pioneering research on the role that RNAs play in devastating neurological diseases,” says Whitehead Institute Director David C. Page. “This exciting work is at the forefront of soft-matter physics and cell biology, and could well open new chapters in RNA regulation specifically and in cell biology more broadly.”
“I am very grateful for the Packard Foundation’s support of our continued investigations of how RNA aggregation contributes to disease,” says Jain.
Jain has discovered that certain RNAs can form aggregates, clumping together into membrane-less gels. This process, known as phase separation, has been widely studied in proteins, but not in RNA. He has found that RNA gels occur in, and could contribute to, a set of neurological conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington’s disease. These conditions, known as repeat expansion diseases, are marked by abnormal repetition of short sequences of nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA and RNA. The RNAs containing these sequences are more likely to clump together.
The fellowship will enable Jain to advance his research program around this phenomenon. “Although it is well-appreciated that RNA can form aggregates in test tubes, the biological implications of this process are not yet known,” he explains. “The award will allow us to examine how RNA aggregates affect cell function and ultimately contribute to neurological disease.”
Jain joined Whitehead Institute and MIT in 2018, after conducting postdoctoral research in the lab of Ronald Vale at the University of California at San Francisco. He earned a doctorate in biophysics and computational biology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013, and received his bachelor’s degree (with honors) in biotechnology and biochemical engineering from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur in 2007.
Past Packard Fellows have gone on to receive a range of accolades, including the Nobel Prize in chemistry and physics, the Fields Medal, the Alan T. Waterman Award, MacArthur Fellowships, and elections to the National Academies. They include Frances Arnold, recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who chairs the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel, and Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorthy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT, who is a member of all three National Academies (science, engineering, and medicine).