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Michael Jewett Receives Prestigious Packard Fellowship

Synthetic biology expert receives $875,000 grant to re-conceptualize how we engineer biology

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November 1, 2011 | by Megan Fellman
Michael Jewett
Michael Jewett

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Michael C. Jewett, a synthetic biology expert at Northwestern University, has been awarded a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Jewett is assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. He also is a member of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.

He is among the 16 promising science and engineering researchers nationwide named this year to receive an unrestricted research grant of $875,000 over five years. These professors are tackling some of the critical scientific questions of our time and promise to have a big impact not just on their fields but also on the students working with them.

With his Packard Foundation funding, Jewett will advance his research on developing cell-free synthetic biology for biomanufacturing new classes of life-saving drugs, sustainable fuels and novel materials from renewable resources, both quickly and on demand.

Jewett was thrilled to receive the Packard Fellowship. “I am honored and excited to be named a Packard Fellow and proud to represent Northwestern and the McCormick School with this achievement,” Jewett said. “One of the amazing aspects of this award is the freedom provided by the foundation. My lab has the freedom to explore new directions of research that might be considered too risky by some government funding agencies, especially in today’s funding climate.”

For decades, scientists have harnessed biology for use as cellular factories to make fuels for cars, antibiotics that fight infections and targeted therapeutics that attack disease. However, the current approach to engineering cells is often prohibitively costly and remains difficult because of our incomplete knowledge of how life works, Jewett says. And, unlike typical engineered systems, cells have their own agenda, such as growth and adaptation.

Jewett and his team hope to create a new paradigm for engineering biology in the face of these complex challenges. Rather than attempt to balance the tug-of-war between the cell’s objectives and the engineer’s objectives, they aim to discover efficient new strategies for designing and constructing cell-free systems that transform ensembles of cellular machines -- such as the enzymes that make protein therapeutics -- into systems that can be engineered just as integrated circuits are engineered today.

Linda Broadbelt, chair of the department of chemical and biological engineering, is enthusiastic about the potential implications of Jewett’s research. “The Packard award will enable his research group to lay the intellectual framework for creating a menu of biochemical reactions that can be stitched together in any combination for making new molecules that could touch nearly all aspects of our lives,” she said.

Jewett is the first professor in Northwestern’s chemical and biological engineering department to earn the fellowship and the second in the McCormick School. The other McCormick recipient is Monica Olvera de la Cruz, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Materials Science and Engineering.

Other honors received by Jewett this year include the Young Faculty Award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Agilent Early Career Professor Award.

“I think our recent momentum stems, in part, from the power of cell-free synthetic biology, the remarkable research environment provided by Dean Julio Ottino and my colleagues, and the high caliber of students at Northwestern,” Jewett said. “I am extremely fortunate to have built an amazing team of creative and motivated students and postdocs. One of the best parts of my job is the ability to invest my energy into cultivating the minds of a new cadre of scientists and engineers.”

Prior to joining Northwestern in 2009, Jewett made strong contributions to synthetic biology at the Harvard Medical School as a National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award Fellow, to systems biology at the Technical University of Denmark as a National Science Foundation International Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and to cell-free biology during his Ph.D. work at Stanford.

The Packard Foundation invited presidents of 50 U.S. universities to nominate two young professors, each doing innovative research in the natural sciences or engineering. The 16 Packard Fellowship recipients then were chosen from this group.

“It is the Packard Foundation’s honor to support some of the nation’s most talented scientific researchers,” said Lynn Orr, Keleen and Carlton Beal Professor at Stanford University and chairman of the Packard Fellowship Advisory Panel.

The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering, established in 1988, is among the nation’s largest nongovernmental programs designed to seek out and reward the pursuit of scientific discovery with “no strings attached” support.
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