By PETER JI
For The News-Letter
University President Ronald J. Daniels presented the inaugural President’s Frontier Award to Sharon Gerecht, an associate professor in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department in the Whiting School of Engineering, on Dec. 1. The award also entails a $250,000 prize to further her research. The event took place in the Mason Hall auditorium.
Gerecht obtained a B.A. in biology from the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in 2004. She said that her interest in stem cells originated from reading scientific articles.
“I was thinking what was I going to do for my Ph.D., and I looked back at the paper about embryonic stem cell lines derived from human blastocysts,” she said.
She decided to pursue her Ph.D. in bioengineering, also at the Technion Institute. At the time, she was excited by the developments in early stem cell research.
“I came across a special report from Scientific American. It said in the introduction, ‘Imagine one day when people with liver failure can be cured with implanted neo-organs made of liver cells and plastic fibers,’” she said. “This captivated my attention. In another paper… they talked about the challenges ahead of us.”
Daniels noted the unique, cross-disciplinary perspective Gerecht offers to stem cell research at Hopkins.
“This is a wonderful moment not just for Sharon but our university as well,” he said. “We were able to recognize the creativity and promise of one of our own surrounded by cheering lab members, postdocs and undergraduates with a background in a range of disciplines… Creating an entirely new class of hydrogels, Sharon has shown herself intellectually nimble investigator who speaks the languages of materials science as well as biomedical engineering, chemistry and biology.”
At the suggestion of one of her mentors during her time at Technion, she traveled to Tel-Aviv University where she worked with Professor Smadar Cohen to successfully differentiate stem cells to produce vascular structures. Cohen’s lab later won a grant from the National Institutes of Health — an event that rarely occurs for research outside of the U.S.
The foundation for her current research on producing biomaterials to regulate stem cell growth began when she worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), starting in 2004.
She is particularly interested in manipulating stem cells to mimic the vasculature of our bodies by altering the microenvironment of the cells.
Her current breakthroughs promise many biomedical applications in wound healing, drug delivery and tumor formation.
“What can I do that is new and different from my training — now I decide to focus on the vasculature of our body? Blood vessels deliver oxygen and nutrients to our body, and it is very complex,” she said.
Daniels intends future President’s Frontier Awards to help Hopkins faculty who work on new and innovative projects that are often overlooked by traditional sources of funding, which seek projects that are already scientifically well-established.
“This is also the kind of investment that remains crucial as our faculty works against the reality of the declining federal investment in research funding,” he said. “The purchasing power of NIH funding has declined by 20 percent in real terms over the past decade — a fact that is particularly daunting for faculty just launching their research careers. At Hopkins, we are acutely aware of the need to support our faculty… The President’s Frontier Award is a part of meeting that need.”