Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
Professor Angela Belcher has been named 2006 Research Leader of the Year and a member of the "Scientific American 50," the magazine's annual list of individuals, teams, companies and other organizations whose accomplishments demonstrate outstanding technological leadership.
Three other MIT researchers are also among the Scientific American 50. They are Elizabeth Goldring, a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and Professors Susan L. Lindquist and Richard A. Young of the Department of Biology and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. (Young shares the honor with Laurie A. Boyer, a postdoctoral scientist at Whitehead.)
The Scientific American 50 were named for their achievements in research, business or policymaking. A Leader of the Year was selected for each category. Belcher was named for research, putting her in the company of environmentalist and former Vice President Al Gore (policy leader) and the environmentally minded insurance firm Swiss Re (business leader).
A professor with appointments in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Biological Engineering Division, Belcher was recognized for "the use of custom-evolved viruses to advance nanotechnology," according to the magazine.
"Using nature to create machinery, Belcher employs a living virus called M13 to construct metal nano-components that may be eventually incorporated into commercial devices," the editors wrote.
How does it feel to be named Research Leader of the Year? "There are a few things that hit me as especially rewarding about receiving this honor, in addition to the recognition of my research contributions," Belcher said.
"The first is that Scientific American is so widely read, including by kids. Since the magazine's article earlier this year about my group's work on virus nanowires, I have had many inquiries and questions from kids [of all ages] who are excited about nanoscience and biology. To me that is very exciting."
She went on to note that "this honor coincides with the first birthday of my son. From the time I was an undergraduate I worried about whether I could be successful in science and engineering and also have a family, and I get this question a lot from young women.
"I feel that this honor has given me the additional reassurance that I am doing both; that it can be challenging but it is also very rewarding and possible. It really helps to be at an institution like MIT that has excellent students and that is so supportive."
Goldring was honored for her development of a "seeing machine" that can allow people who are blind, or visually challenged like her, to access the Internet, view the face of a friend, "previsit" unfamiliar buildings and more.
John Rennie, editor in chief of Scientific American, cited Goldring's work as reflecting a trend among this year's winners. "We're seeing individuals, such as Elizabeth Goldring, whose medical conditions have inspired them to make dramatic scientific or fundraising contributions to medical research."
Lindquist was named to the Scientific American 50 for a discovery related to the prion protein that causes mad cow disease when malformed. In collaboration with Professor Harvey F. Lodish of MIT and Whitehead, she found that in its normal state, this protein "may also help nurture and maintain the body's supply of blood-cell-producing stem cells."
Young and Boyer "demonstrated how three proteins control the process by which an embryonic stem cell differentiates into a mature blood, brain or bone cell."
The Scientific American 50 list, selected by the board of editors of Scientific American, appears in the December issue of the magazine, on newsstands Nov. 21. It can also be accessed on Scientific American's web site starting Nov. 13.