Harris Wang Awarded Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

September 10, 2021
Harris Wang, Schaefer Scholar
Harris Wang

Harris Wang, PhD, was awarded a 2022 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science for his development of synthetic biology tools that can be used to better understand the human microbiome and create new microbial systems to improve human health, create energy and food, and clean the environment. 

Wang, associate professor of systems biology and of pathology & cell biology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, is widely regarded as a pioneer in the field of synthetic biology.  

The Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise are awarded annually to immigrants whose early-career work represents a significant contribution to their field and demonstrates exceptional insight or innovation.  

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Wang was recognized specifically for his development of Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering (MAGE), a technique that enables rapid genome editing of microbial cells and allows scientists to generate potential genomic variants quickly and efficiently at scale. MAGE was hailed as a breakthrough when it was first developed in 2009 and has played an important role in the expansion of synthetic biology. 

Wang's use of CRISPR technology to track and record transient cellular processes in the human gut microbiome was also recognized by the award. 

At Columbia, Wang uses MAGE and other techniques developed in his laboratory to genetically engineer the gut microbiome in mammals, better understand how diet affects the gut microbiome, and reprogram mammalian cells to create new nutrients. 

“Wang’s work has the potential to shape a new area in genomics, modeling, and analysis of complex microbial metabolism and ecosystems,” the Vilcek Foundation said in an announcement of the prize.

Before joining Columbia in 2013, Wang was an instructor in systems biology at Harvard University. He earned a PhD in biophysics & medical engineering at Harvard and bachelor’s degrees in physics and applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among other honors, he received a Hirschl Trust Research Scientist Award in 2019, was named a Schaefer Research Scholar at Columbia University in 2018, and received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the White House in 2017. 

The Vilcek Foundation is a nonprofit organization established to raise awareness of the contributions to the arts and sciences made by immigrants in the United States. Wang was born in Beijing and immigrated to the United States when he was 9 years old, three years after his parents arrived. Wang says the three-year waiting period taught him patience and resilience, two attributes that have served him well in his career.