Assistant Professor Markita del Carpio Landry of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has been named the inaugural recipient of the Philomathia Prize. The prize recognizes demonstrated excellence and future potential of a UC Berkeley faculty member’s research.
Established in 2021 through a generous endowment gift from the Philomathia Foundation, the Philomathia Prize will be presented annually to one early-career faculty member from any discipline who demonstrates great distinction and promise for fundamental scholarly discovery with significant impact. The prize comes with a monetary award of $200,000, to be used at the awardee’s sole discretion over three years.
“Our intention is for the Philomathia Prize to inspire Berkeley’s faculty and enable them to pursue the kind of highly original inquiry with the potential to yield the most important advances,” said Wilfred Chung, philanthropist and president of the Philomathia Foundation, a private charitable organization that provides seed funding, scholarships and fellowships to forward-thinking faculty and students at its partner institutions. “Prof. Landry’s innovative research and achievements are impressive and exemplary. Her dedication to mentoring the next generation of scientists is most laudable. She sets the high standard for the recipients to follow as we expand the Philomathia Prize globally.”
Chancellor Carol T. Christ said, “The review committee, chaired by Vice Provost for the Faculty Ben Hermalin, had the challenging task of selecting a winner from a large pool of high-quality applications. Professor Landry’s research and career trajectory were viewed as exceptional and especially worthy of this inaugural prize.”
Trained as an undergraduate and graduate student in both physics and chemistry, Landry has circled back to biology, a field that once daunted her, in order to apply her interdisciplinary knowledge and expertise to help people. “I was always really fascinated with biology and, specifically, with how humans are humans,” Landry said. Intimidated by the complexity of biological systems, however, she said she pivoted to physics because “everything is so much more simple.”
As a postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering at MIT, Landry was introduced to nanotechnology and its potential to expand the horizons of scientific research. She said that after joining the Berkeley faculty in 2016, “I promised myself that if I was ever completely in charge of my own research program, I wouldn’t take the safe route, even if it could cost me tenure or job security. I’d make the most of a position like this, where I’m the one deciding what gets researched.”
In support of Landry’s nomination for the Philomathia Prize, Jeffrey A. Reimer, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, noted that she is pushing the boundaries of chemistry, biology, medicine and agriculture in her lab. Wrote Reimer, “Professor Landry has shown herself to be a bold, even fearless, researcher in pursuing, simultaneously, two research endeavors that are designed to impact broad scientific, as well as technological, questions.”
Landry and her lab team have been developing novel nanotechnology tools that could be deployed, for instance, to genetically alter agricultural plants more efficiently, or to investigate how neurons in the brain communicate chemically.
Their tools rely on single-walled carbon nanotubes that, when combined with polymers, function as near-infrared probes, lighting up in the presence of particular neurotransmitter molecules. This technique permits reliable monitoring of signals passing between neurons and could ultimately help diagnose and treat depression, anxiety, addiction and other conditions.
“What’s fascinating about nanoscience is that you’re adding almost a third dimension to the periodic table by making things of a different size specifically very, very small,” Landry said. “Having this whole other dimension of information is going to be really important for both more fundamental neuroscience applications and also to validate how drugs work, or how these psychiatric conditions actually affect chemical signaling.”
In her Philomathia Prize proposal, Landry outlined a new project with a goal of designing optical probes to advance autism research. Signaling by neuropeptides is thought to be disrupted in autism spectrum disorders, contributing to impaired social behaviors. Landry’s Philomathia-funded project intends to image neuropeptide signaling with near-infrared microscopy, which would enable exploring the role of these newly visible neurochemical signals in autism spectrum disorders.
Preliminary data have been encouraging, and Landry’s lab already has a track record of engineering novel biosensors with the sensitivity to measure and monitor neuromodulators, such as dopamine and serotonin, in the living brain. Despite these successes, Landry has faced funding challenges from being perceived as a physicist or engineer who has ventured into neuroscience. That’s why she considers the flexibility and financial support that accompany the Philomathia Prize to be invaluable. Landry said, “My research program, without the support of philanthropy, would look absolutely nothing like it does now.”
Landry’s prize will be presented on Nov. 5 during a campus celebration of Philomathia Day. Landry will give a keynote address about her work and host a series of short lectures and lightning talks by colleagues and students around the theme of technological advances to see inside the brain for basic research and biomedical applications.
Future Philomathia Prize recipients will be announced each March and will alternate between a STEM discipline and a social sciences or humanities discipline. The Philomathia Prize competition is open to tenure-track assistant professors and recently tenured associate professors, and a selection committee of tenured Berkeley faculty will select the recipient. The prize winner is expected to uphold the Philomathia Foundation’s vision of seeking innovative means to promote the betterment of humankind through a commitment to education and research. The nomination process for the next Philomathia Prize will open in October.
Dedicated to improving the human condition through the support of innovative individuals and ideas, the Philomathia Foundation has been a generous philanthropic partner with the campus for more than two decades. It had provided significant gifts to build the East Asian Library and Tien Center for East Asian Studies, to establish the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute and the Advanced Bioimaging Center and to support graduate student and postdoctoral fellows in the environmental sciences.