Gradinaru and Benardini Receive Presidential Early Career Awards

Viviana Gradinaru (BS '05), an assistant professor of biology and biological engineering, and James Benardini, a planetary protection engineer at JPL, have been named as recipients of the 2016 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

The PECASE awards were created to foster innovative developments in science and technology, increase awareness of careers in science and engineering, give recognition to the scientific missions of participating agencies, enhance connections between fundamental research and many of the grand challenges facing the nation, and highlight the importance of science and technology for America's future. The award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Viviana Gradinaru is an assistant professor of biology and biological engineering as well as the faculty director of the Beckman Institute Center for CLARITY, Optogenetics, and Vector Engineering Research (CLOVER). Her work focuses on developing technologies such as optogenetics (using light to control genetically modified cells) and tissue clearing (that can render rodent tissues and bodies transparent via PARS CLARITY). Most recently, she and her team have discovered how to modify the protein shell of a harmless virus to successfully enter the adult mouse brain from the bloodstream—crossing the so-called blood-brain barrier—and deliver genes to cells of the nervous system. Gradinaru employs these technologies for mapping and modulating brain networks to understand and develop therapies for neurological diseases.

James (Nick) Benardini is the planetary protection lead on the InSight and Mars 2020 missions. He and his colleagues study how to minimize microbial and other biological contamination on outgoing space missions. This involves the use of clean rooms and microbial reduction modalities in addition to looking for genetic traces on samples collected from spacecraft and spacecraft-associated surfaces.

In addition to Gradinaru, three other Caltech alumni were named as 2016 PECASE recipients: Alon Gorodetsky (PhD '09), Jon Simon (BS '04), and Tammy Ma (BS '05).

The winners will receive their awards at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., this spring.

Written by Lorinda Dajose