Theriot wins MacArthur Fellowship to pursue her passion for biology

Julie Theriot

Julie Theriot

Julie Theriot was stunned by the early morning telephone call Sept. 21 informing her that she had just joined the club that includes some of the world's most creative minds. Theriot, an assistant professor of biochemistry and of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine, had received one of the rare MacArthur Fellowships-often referred to as "genius awards"-meaning that she would be free to spend $500,000 in the next five years in pursuing her passion for biology, wherever it may take her.

"I was very surprised. It was surreal," she said. "It's amazing because it's absolutely unrestricted. I want to do something different, and I haven't decided yet what that will be. I'm sure I'll figure it out."

Theriot, 36, is one of 23 talented individuals nationwide named this week as MacArthur Fellows for 2004. The fellows are selected by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for their "originality, creativity and the potential to do more in the future."

Theriot is a progressive thinker (she stops short of calling herself a political radical) who has always tried to approach biology in different and creative ways. Her work has helped to unravel some of the mysteries of bacterial infection, particularly by the food-borne germs Shigella, which causes dysentery, and Listeria, which can be particularly damaging to pregnant women, newborns and people with weakened immune systems.

These nasty bugs have similar modes of action and can evade detection by the immune system by covertly slipping into cells, where they dart around like little speedboats. Ultimately, they propel themselves through the cell membrane to infect another cell and spread disease. In recent years, Theriot has been applying the principles of math and physics to gain an understanding of this dynamic biological process.

"As a kid, I would look at pond water under a microscope. When you look at cells, they're so alive. You can't help but be curious. They're constantly rebuilding themselves. … It's so amazing to me how it works," Theriot said.

A native of Illinois, Theriot did undergraduate work in physics and biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her graduate work in cell biology at the University of California-San Francisco, where she was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Predoctoral Fellow. She was a fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research from 1993 to 1997. She visited Stanford in 1997 to present her work at a seminar and "blew everyone out of the water," said Jim Spudich, professor and former chair of biochemistry. That same afternoon, Spudich got the go-ahead from the university provost to recruit Theriot to Stanford as a junior faculty member. He called Theriot's approach to biology "innovative and creative."

"She's an absolutely terrific scientist who more than anyone I know very effectively combines biology with physics and math to understand how cells move and how organelles within cells move. Her work has really inspired a lot of research having to do with those questions," Spudich said.

Theriot's office in the Beckman Center carries the evidence of a busy and creative mind, with papers tossed about and stacks of scientific and literary tomes, and a poster of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom she said she greatly admires. In the corner stands a 10-gallon tank of Nicaraguan cichlid fish, whose scales have cells that move rapidly, a process Theriot is now studying.

"When I walked into my office Tuesday [after receiving that fateful call] and everything was in chaos, I thought, 'It's all right for my office to look that way. It's eccentric,'" Theriot said, smiling.

She said there is one thing the MacArthur award won't allow her: "What I wish I had, which the money can't change, is time. I have so many opportunities to do so many things. I love to teach, I love my research, I love doing seminars. ... If I could double the amount of time in the day, that would be freedom for me."

She said she's grateful to have received the award at this stage in her career.

"I'm glad I didn't get it earlier," she said. "It's only recently that I've become comfortable with myself. I know who I am and what I want to do in a global sense. It's a great opportunity to take some of the ideas I've wanted to do in the long term and do them in a short-term way."

Theriot is one of two Stanford faculty members to receive MacArthur Fellowships this year. The other is Daphne Koller, an associate professor of computer science.