Carnegie Mellon Computational Biologist Receives Prestigious PECASE Award
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Carnegie Mellon Computational Biologist Receives Prestigious PECASE Award

Russell Schwartz
Computational biologist Russell Schwartz is being recognized as part of an elite group of the most promising early-career scientists and engineers at a Washington, D.C., ceremony on Monday, June 13.

Schwartz, an assistant professor of biological sciences, is one of 58 young innovators to receive the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) this year. Established by the White House in 1996, the PECASE program annually honors approximately 60 scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, have already blended excellence in pioneering research and service to their communities through scientific leadership and outreach activities.

The award recognizes Schwartz's work to improve computer models and simulation methods for biological self-assembly systems. Studies in the field are important for converting the rapidly accumulating data on the basic components and interactions in living cells into computer simulations that can be used to predict cell behavior and experiment with hypothetical ways to influence this behavior. Ultimately, such work will impact disease diagnosis and management.

The award also honors Schwartz's teaching plans, which include introducing beginning biology students to computational resources and developing advanced curricula to prepare the next generation of computational biology experts for the new problems they will confront.

The image from Schwartz's research shows a screen snapshot from a simulation of the formation of icosahedral virus protein shells, or capsids, from a pool of model coat proteins (red spheres). The snapshot captures several growing shells at different stages along the growth pathway, from a pentamer of five proteins to a complete shell of sixty proteins.
"We were very fortunate to recruit Russell Schwartz to our faculty," said Elizabeth Jones, head of Carnegie Mellon's Department of Biological Sciences at the Mellon College of Science (MCS). "He is a creative, highly productive scientist who brings computational biology to bear on interesting problems at scientific interfaces."

Schwartz is one of the 20 PECASE winners selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) each year from among the most recent NSF Faculty Career Development (CAREER) Program awardees. About 40 awards in each PECASE conferral cycle are given by other government agencies.

The CAREER award, bestowed upon fewer than 400 scientists and engineers each year, is the NSF's most prestigious award for new faculty members. Winners receive five-year grants ranging from $400,000 to nearly $1 million to support the creative integration of research and education to further their institutions' missions. They work in and across a diversity of disciplines, including biological sciences; computer and information science; engineering; education and human resources; geological sciences; mathematical and physical sciences; and social, behavioral and economic sciences.

Schwartz received an NSF CAREER award of $838,000 in June 2004 to support his research and teaching plans.

Of Schwartz and other PECASE winners, John Marburger III, director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, says, "You are an example to your colleagues and to future generations, and you will help to shape the future through your discoveries and intellectual leadership."

According to Schwartz, biological self-assembly systems consist of potentially thousands of simple biological subunits that assemble into larger structures, such as enzyme complexes, ribosomes, cell membranes, and viruses. By modeling the chemical reactions that occur among individual molecules, Schwartz aims to develop a more complete and accurate simulation of complex cell systems. This research should move scientists toward a greater understanding of mechanisms that control chemical reactions on a small scale and the means by which one can manipulate them. Such knowledge could eventually be used to accelerate research into the basic mechanisms of living cells and into applied problems such as drug discovery.

Prior to joining Carnegie Mellon's Department of Biological Sciences as an assistant professor in 2002, Schwartz worked as an informatics research scientist at Celera Genomics. Before holding this position, he completed a postdoctoral appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had earned a B.S. in computer science and engineering, a M.Eng. in electrical engineering and computer science and a Ph.D. in computer science.

Past Carnegie Mellon PECASE winners include Yoky Matsuoka, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and Jennifer Lerner, associate professor of social and decision sciences. Both Matsuoka and Lerner were recognized by the PECASE in 2003.

MCS maintains innovative research and educational programs in biological sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and several interdisciplinary areas. For more information, visit

Kate Hough
June 13, 2005

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