October 28, 2020

Princeton Professor is 2020 Winner Of Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists

By Anne Levin

Clifford Brangwynne

Clifford Brangwynne is no stranger to winning awards. The Princeton University professor of chemical and biological engineering had 11 honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, to his name, before being named a Blavatnik National Awards Laureate this month.

The $250,000 award is the largest unrestricted scientific prize offered to the country’s most promising, young, faculty-level scientific researchers. “Clifford Brangwynne, PhD, has transformed the field of cell and molecular biology through his discovery of what has been called a new state of biological matter,” reads a statement from the prestigious awards program.

All of this fuss hasn’t gone to Brangwynne’s head. “It’s a huge honor,” he said during a phone interview. “I think it’s the biggest award for young scientists, and I just make it because I’m just 42. There’s a big ceremony that’s incredibly black tie.’

Brangwynne, who lives in Hopewell with his family, grew up in the Boston area. “I was not somebody destined to do science or anything like that,” he said. “I come from a pretty working class background. My parents hadn’t gone to college. I wasn’t the kid with chemistry sets in the basement.”

Around high school, he started getting interested in science. At Carnegie-Mellon University, he thought about majoring in Spanish or psychology. He took a biology class. “I liked the phenomenology but not the memorization involved,” he said.

Brangwynne decided to try material science and engineering because he remembered a description given to him when he worked at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in high school. “One night I got a ride home from this guy who went to MIT, and he told me about it. He gave a great explanation, so I thought, hey, why not?”

In class, he was immediately intrigued. Brangwynne also worked in the University’s biology labs, and became fascinated by films that showed the way cells constantly move around.

Brangwynne went on to earn a PhD at Harvard University, and did post-doctoral work at the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems in Germany. The Brangwynne Lab at Princeton is described on its website as “an interdisciplinary team of engineers, biologists, and physicists using principles of soft matter physics to understand and engineer living biological materials.”

The work in the lab has applications for treatment of Alzheimer’s, among other devastating diseases. “Neuro-degenerative diseases are closely related to discoveries for which I’m being honored,” Brangwynne said. “But our work is pretty fundamental. I continue to find it incredible that we’re so advanced in technology, but still don’t have any treatments for these devastating diseases that rob a person of their identity. Losing the mind is probably worse than losing the body. And everybody knows somebody who has been struck down with these things.”

There is not enough understanding, Brangwynne said, of the basic biological, biophysical, and biochemical properties that underlie cells and tissues. “I sometimes detect in conversations with non-scientists that people are surprised when I say how little we know,” he said. “But we really have no idea, still, of how much of biology works. It’s so shocking to me.”

Brangwynne likes to use a particular analogy. “If an alien space craft were to crash in the middle of Nassau and Witherspoon streets, we would be amazed and take it apart carefully,” he said. “We’d study the controls and try to understand it. And really, that’s what biological systems are. They are the most biologically and technically advanced systems on the planet.”

Nothing, he added, comes close to the complexity of a living cell. “Just trying to understand them, and the way in which they’re set up — to get molecules to get together in just the right ways — somehow in that chaotic sea, we get form and function, and it is not understood at all. That is what we’re trying to do. I think we’ve made progress. That’s why people are excited about the discoveries we’ve made.”