Justin Silpe Wins Inaugural International Birnstiel Award

Written by
Princeton University, Molecular Biology Staff
Sept. 24, 2019

The inaugural International Birnstiel Award is given to three young scientists that stood out from exceptionally strong competition: over 100 nominations from an equal number of institutions in Europe, the US and Asia had put forward their most talented PhD student from the previous year, covering a broad spectrum of the molecular life sciences.

“We are were very impressed by the overwhelming number and quality of nominations that we received”, said Meinrad Busslinger, IMP Deputy Director and chair of the selection panel. “The three awardees have made contributions to their field that are exceptional to make in the frame of doctoral studies, and they show great promise for stellar research careers. I hope to speak in the spirit of Max Birnstiel in saying that it is a privilege for us to highlight these three colleagues as inspiration for any young scientist.”

Justin Silpe is a PhD student in the lab of Bonnie Bassler at Princeton University in New Jersey. His studies set off to investigate communication among bacteria via signalling molecules that underly collective behaviours. Having helped to identify the molecule DPO as one such signal, he contributed to finding a much broader prevalence of DPO in cell-to-cell communication in bacteria, viruses, and within complex multicellular settings. Justin then showed that DPO information can be hijacked by bacterial viruses, called phages, to infect bacteria by expressing DPO receptors, a strategy for which he found indications to be widely spread in phages. Justin’s discoveries demonstrated the first case of viruses integrating innate host signalling information, which he reported in several scientific publications including Cell and continues to work on today. Prior to his PhD, Justin completed his undergraduate and master’s degree as part of a concurrent undergraduate-graduate studies program in Macromolecular Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor.

The other two awardees are Emily Bayer in the lab of Oliver Hobert at Columbia University, and Mohamed El-Brolosy of the lab of Didier Stainier at the Max Planck Institute.

The International Birnstiel Award is given for the first time this year and will become an annual celebration of outstanding achievements by doctoral students in molecular life sciences. It is endowed by the Max Birnstiel Foundation and the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology. Awardees attend the Vienna BioCenter PhD Symposium on 7 and 8 November, where they will receive a certificate, trophy and cash prize of 2,000 Euro. While any academic institution in the World is entitled to submit a nomination, nominations are limited to only one per institution or PhD programme. Due to the highly competitive nature of the selection, the Birnstiel Award will become a flagship honour to celebrate emerging leaders in molecular life science research.

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