Prestigious Swiss Fellowship Awarded to Lane Center’s Cheemeng Tan
A researcher at Carnegie Mellon
University’s Lane Center for Computational Biology is one of eight promising
young scientists chosen last week for a prestigious international fellowship by
the Zurich-based Society in Science.
The Branco Weiss Fellowship
awarded to Cheemeng Tan, a Lane Fellow at CMU, will help support his research
into the use of artificial, man-made cells to stop the spread of drug-resistant
Founded in 2002 and overseen by
the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the Branco Weiss
Fellowship offers a generous personal grant for up to five years to researchers
who have recently earned their Ph.Ds.
The highly competitive
fellowship has never before been awarded to a CMU researcher.
Tan, who works in the emerging
field of synthetic biology, joined the Lane Center in 2010 after completing his
Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Duke University.
“This award is a confirmation
of the excellence that led to Cheemeng being chosen by our faculty as a Lane
Fellow,” said Robert F. Murphy, director of the Lane Center for Computational
Biology at CMU and a professor of biological sciences, biomedical engineering
and machine learning. “We look forward to his important future contributions.”
A relatively new field,
synthetic biology combines techniques of biology, physics and engineering.
Researchers focus on the design and construction of cells that can mimic or
alter existing biological processes to prevent the spread of diseases, fight
infections and counteract genetic abnormalities. Synthetic biology has shown
promise for applications in the treatment of cancer, synthesis of anti-malaria
drugs and production of biofuels.
Tan’s work includes creating computational
models that both guide experiments and predict the behavior of synthetic cells.
His current research focuses on the predictive engineering of artificial cells
and bringing new insights into the application of computational algorithms to
“By integrating both
computational and synthetic biology, I believe that my current project could
create a new frontier of artificial cells in synthetic biology,” Tan said.
His current work is directed
toward new therapeutic treatments for bacterial infections, which is becoming a
global health concern due to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. New
antibiotics can encounter resistant bacteria in as short as three years. In
Europe alone, resistant bacteria have caused 25,000 deaths and 2.5 million
additional days of hospitalization.
To tackle this global issue,
Tan is working to create artificial cells that could inhibit pathogen growth
and slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. Funding from the Branco Weiss
Fellowship will support Tan’s efforts to construct artificial cells for
therapeutic treatment using synthetic biology.
“His work will have a
tremendous impact and help people around the world,” said Philip LeDuc, CMU
professor of mechanical engineering and founding director of the university's
Center for the Mechanics and Engineering of Cellular Systems. LeDuc serves as
an advisor to Tan along with Russell Schwartz, professor of biological sciences
and computer science and co-director of the Lane Center’s Ph.D. program.
“The diverse international
group of researchers from which he was selected corroborates the importance of
his exciting work that merges the interdisciplinary areas of synthetic biology
and artificial cells,” LeDuc said.
The Branco Weiss Fellowship is
named for the late Dr. Branco Weiss, Swiss technology entrepreneur and philanthropist.
The fellowship provides a unique platform for young researchers to pursue their
own research while they also address specific social issues. Applicants need to
demonstrate exceptional research achievement and independence, and be prepared
to look beyond their own scientific goals.
Tan currently serves as an
advisor in the first CMU International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM)
competition to identify and train the next generation of synthetic biologists.
He intends to use his Branco Weiss Fellowship in part to help instill a
commitment to social responsibility into the researchers he will be training.
Tan’s work is
multi-disciplinary, combining both computational and synthetic biology
approaches, and includes collaborations with CMU’s departments of Biological
Sciences, Chemistry and Physics. “Carnegie Mellon University provides a unique
and friendly collaborative environment that would strongly facilitate this
project on artificial cells,” Tan said.
A native of Malaysia, Tan holds
a master of science in high-performance computing from Singapore-MIT Alliance
and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University. In 2011, he was
among the top 25 finalists for an NIH Director's Early Independence Award from
the National Institutes of Health.