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Alex Shalek wins Edgerton Faculty Award

Professor of chemistry and IMES core member is recognized for his leadership and pioneering spirit.
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Professor Alex Shalek has been named the recipient of the 2019-20 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.
Professor Alex Shalek has been named the recipient of the 2019-20 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award.
Photo: Justin Knight

Alex K. Shalek, the Pfizer-Laubach Career Development Associate Professor of Chemistry, core member of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), and extramural member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, has been named the recipient of the 2019-20 Harold E. Edgerton Faculty Achievement Award. The award’s selection committee chose to recognize Shalek for “his leadership and pioneering spirit; his vision, inventiveness, and enthusiasm for mentorship and collaboration; and his tremendous contributions to a critical area at the intersection of science and medicine.”

Shalek’s research is directed toward the creation and implementation of new technologies to understand how cells collectively perform systems-level functions in healthy and diseased states. A leader in creating and implementing new methods, both experimental and computational, Shalek studies how cells collectively drive health and disease. He and his team work to make technology available to people, simplifying and economizing approaches to facilitate global and clinical utilization, and to deepen our understanding of human malignant, infectious, and inflammatory diseases. The insights developed through his profiling methods are helping to both transform our understanding of the cellular basis of disease and inform therapeutic intervention strategies.

“When Professor Shalek first came to MIT, he helped to develop a method called Drop-Seq that revolutionized single‐cell analysis by allowing researchers to reproducibly recover the transcriptomes — the set of all the RNA transcripts (information copied from a strand of DNA) — of thousands of single cells at minimal cost,” Professor Antoinette Schoar, chair of the selection committee, said in a statement on the committee’s behalf. “Such unbiased single‐cell profiling promised transformative opportunities to understand human health and disease — for example, to identify malignant clones in cancer biopsies or the cellular targets of acute HIV infection in blood. To realize this potential, Professor Shalek and his team, in collaboration with Professor Chris Love’s lab, subsequently reengineered this method, developing Seq-Well, an ultra‐portable, low‐cost single‐cell RNA‐sequencing technology that can profile the transcriptomes of thousands of cells from multiple clinical samples at once. This technology redefines what scientists around the world can learn from precious samples, enabling both basic and clinical research on a global scale.”

In addition to his positions in the chemistry department and IMES, Shalek is an extramural member of the Koch Institute, an institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, an associate member of the Ragon Institute, an assistant in immunology at Massachusetts General Hospital, an instructor of health sciences and technology at Harvard Medical School, and an affiliate faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He received three degrees in chemical physics: a BA from Columbia University, and MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. After receiving his doctorate, he was a postdoc at Harvard, MIT, and the Broad Institute. Shalek joined the MIT faculty in 2014 as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and a core member of IMES. He was promoted to associate professor without tenure in 2019.

Shalek has obtained 18 patents since joining the MIT faculty, with another 15 pending. Over the same period, he has coauthored 66 papers, reviews, perspectives, and commentaries. Among his numerous accolades are an NIH New Innovator Award, a Sloan Research Fellowship in Chemistry, a Pew-Stewart Scholarship, a Beckman Young Investigator Award, and a Searle Scholarship. In 2019, he was selected as a voice who will guide the next 15 years of methods development by the journal Nature Methods, and as one of the 25 voices who will guide the next 25 years of immunology by the journal Immunity.

The selection committee commended Shalek’s “critically important” dedication to educating and empowering the next generation of scientists, at MIT and beyond. “At MIT, he has designed a highly successful graduate subject that covers the biophysics behind genomic measurement techniques, as well as their applications in medicine,” stated the selection committee in their report. “At the undergraduate level, he has added to the established curriculum by including examples inspired by modern research to illustrate the relevance of his lecture material and promote student engagement. He has been involved in significant curriculum development and education planning projects within Chemistry and IMES. His lab has participated in local events such as the Cambridge Science Festival, HubWeek, and Science on Saturday, as well as doing outreach to middle and high schoolers.”

Shalek’s internal and external service to his community is also to be admired. Shalek serves as an advisor to first-year MIT undergraduates, as well as students in chemistry, in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology’s Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) PhD program, and in the Harvard/MIT MD-PhD program. He has served on the graduate admissions committees not only for chemistry, but also for MEMP, computational and systems biology, and the Harvard Medical School Immunology Program, and the faculty search committees in not only chemistry and IMES, but also the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard. In addition, he served a term on the Institute Committee on Prehealth Advising when he joined MIT as assistant professor. Shalek frequently serves as a reviewer for NIH grant panels and is a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Collaborations for AIDS Vaccine Discovery and TB Vaccine Discovery. He is also involved in the Human Cell Atlas Project, serving as co-leader of its Equity Working Group.

The annual Edgerton Faculty Award was established in 1982 as a tribute to Institute Professor Emeritus Harold E. Edgerton in recognition of his active support of junior faculty members. Each year, a committee presents the award to one or more non-tenured faculty members to recognize exceptional contributions in research, teaching, and service. 

The 2019-20 Edgerton Award Selection Committee was chaired by Professor Antoinette Schoar, the Stewart C. Myers-Horn Family Professor of Finance and Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Committee members included biological engineering Professor Bevin Engelward; Camille Dreyfus Professor of Chemistry Stephen L. Buchwald; literature Professor Shankar Raman; and art, culture, and technology Professor Gediminas Urbonas.

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