Two members of the engineering faculty, Celeste Nelson and Clifford Brangwynne, have been named to the inaugural group of Faculty Scholars, a joint award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Simons Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Faculty Scholars program was created to provide substantial research support for early-career scientists who demonstrated “great potential to make unique contributions to their field,” the sponsors said. The five-year program provides grants ranging from $600,000 to $1.8 million to support participants’ research.
“Both Cliff and Celeste bring a powerful combination of strengths to their work, applying a deep understanding of physical and engineering principles to fundamental questions in biology,” said Athanassios Z. Panagiotopoulos, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “Their insights already are changing our understanding of some of the basic processes of living systems and will ultimately have significant benefits for how we investigate and treat disease.”
Brangwynne, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, was recognized for his work with cellular organelles called ribonucleoprotein (RNP) bodies. “The unique physical properties of these membrane-free organelles may impact how RNP bodies regulate the flow of genetic information, and its dysregulation in disease,” the sponsors said.
In recent years, Brangwynne’s research team has produced a steady stream of insights into the behavior and structure of cells. His team has found that gravity imposes a size constraint on cells, which helps explain why most animal cells are small. The researchers have also explored the key role that the nucleolus, an organelle that speckles the cell nucleus like poppy seeds in a muffin, plays in regulating cell growth. Most recently, Brangwynne explained how the nucleolus, which behaves like a liquid with the consistency of honey, assembles into a complex and layered structure rather than a homogenous blob.
Brangwynne received his bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and his doctorate from Harvard University. He joined the Princeton faculty in 2011. Brangwynne is a recipient of a Sloan Research Fellowship, a National Science Foundation CAREER award and the National Institutes of Health’s New Innovator Award.
Nelson, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, was recognized for her work studying the physical factors that govern embryonic development and cancer. “A clear understanding of the biochemical and physical cues directing embryogenesis may help identify the origin of certain congenital conditions and clarify how development can go awry,” the sponsors said.
By examining the role that mechanical forces and other physical conditions play in regulating tissue growth, Nelson’s research team has produced unique insights into how tissue develops and grows. In one series of experiments, Nelson’s team demonstrated that the complex branching of lung tissue is regulated by mechanical forces as well as genetic expression. The researchers not only demonstrated that mechanical stresses play a key role in the lung’s branching, but also that the arrangement of muscle tissue contributes to these stresses. Nelson’s team has also demonstrated how physical conditions directly contribute to the development of cancer. In one recent study, Nelson’s research team and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center, showed that stiffness and lack of oxygen in tumors trigger a biological switch that enhances the growth of cancer cells. The finding could provide insights for new cancer treatments.
Nelson received her bachelor’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She joined the Princeton faculty in 2007. Also recognized as a gifted and dedicated teacher, Nelson is a recipient of Princeton University’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching as well as the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award and a Packard Fellowship.
Brangwynne and Nelson were among five Princeton University faculty members named as this year’s Faculty Scholars. The other Princeton recipients were Martin Jonikas, assistant professor of molecular biology; Coleen Murphy, professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics; and Mala Murthy, associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
“I am proud that Princeton has five of 84 scholars selected for this honor and that we have two of these top investigators in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering,” Panagiotopoulos said. “This achievement speaks to the deep and varied strengths in engineering and the life sciences within the School of Engineering and Applied Science.”
The 84 scholars selected this year represent 43 institutions. Applicants with more than four years of faculty experience and no more than ten years of experience are eligible. This year, expert panels evaluated more than 1,400 applicants for their potential for significant research based on previous work, results from their research programs and future research plans.