Stanford bioengineer Stephen Quake wins $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize

STEPHEN QUAKE, a professor of bioengineering and of applied physics at Stanford  and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has been named the 2012 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

Holder of over 80 patents, founder of at least four companies based on his conceptions and inventor of technologies that have transformed science and medicine, Quake does work that cuts across a diverse array of fields, such as genomic sequencing, microfluidics, immunology, infectious disease and medical diagnostics. His innovations include a rapid DNA sequencer, a non-invasive prenatal test for Down syndrome and the biological equivalent of the integrated circuit.

“We are thrilled to honor Steve Quake, whose groundbreaking work in the field of molecular measurement has created new devices and technologies that will contribute to improving health,” said Dorothy Lemelson, chair of The Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy that funds the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Stephen has also been a pioneer in inventing new tools that will allow others to engage in scientific discovery and the prototyping of new biomedical devices quicker and easier, paving the way for even more breakthrough ideas.”

Quake is one of an emerging class of scientists in the burgeoning discipline of bioengineering, which seeks to fuse engineering and life sciences to promote scientific discovery and the development of new technologies and therapies in human health and environmental sustainability. Stanford’s Department of Bioengineering is a collaboration of the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine. Established in 2003, it is the university’s newest department. Quake serves as its co-chair.

“I’ve never been satisfied to just publish a paper and leave it at that. I try to turn these ideas into inventions and companies so the research can change people’s lives,” Quake said. “As a physicist, I’m interested in basic science and in measuring things and this turns out to have important applications in medicine.”

“I first encountered Steve when he took an honors freshman physics class I taught at Stanford,” said current U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate, STEVEN CHU, a mentor to Quake. “He later worked in my lab making the first single molecule measurements of DNA elasticity with optical tweezers. For this work, he was awarded the Apker Prize for the best senior physics thesis in the country. Even as an undergraduate, I was in awe over how fast he could grasp new ideas and apply his extensive command of mathematics. I was a total novice in polymer physics, and we taught ourselves and each other. He had a fearless approach to his laboratory work.”

Early inventions

Stanford recognized Quake’s potential early on. “My wife Jean discovered how much promise Steve had in her role as Dean of Admissions,” said Nobel laureate and U.S. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, who was then a professor in the physics department. “She wrote on the admission file, ‘The Physics Department will love this guy!’”

Chu recalled first encountering Quake in an honors freshman physics class he was teaching, and they became even better acquainted when Quake worked in Chu’s lab in his junior and senior years. During this time, Quake made the first single molecule measurements of DNA elasticity with optical tweezers, Chu said. For this work, Quake was awarded the Apker Prize for the best senior physics thesis in the country.

“I was in awe over how fast he could grasp new ideas and apply his extensive command of mathematics,” Chu said. “I was a total novice in polymer physics, and we taught ourselves and each other. He had a fearless approach to his laboratory work that one person in my group thought was like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Dishes were broken, but things happened — and I loved it.”

After graduating from Stanford, Quake went to Oxford as a Marshall Scholar with the intent of studying string theory, but returned to the molecular strings he studied at Stanford. He earned his doctorate combining the polymer theory he mastered at Oxford with experiments he did in Chu’s lab during his final year as an Oxford student. After Oxford, he spent another two years in Chu’s lab further developIng his experimental skills, Chu said.

— BY ANDREW MYERS, Stanford Engineering