Highly selective program awards funding to postdocs pursuing groundbreaking research ideas
By Lindsay Brownell
(BOSTON) — The Branco Weiss Fellowship – Society in Science has named Daniel Bojar, Ph.D., a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wyss Institute, as one of its 2020 Fellows. This highly selective program awards each Fellow 100,000 CHF (roughly $106,000) annually for up to five years to work on any topic they choose, anywhere in the world. Only about 1-3% of applicants are awarded this personal research grant every year.
“It is an incredible honor to be selected for a Branco Weiss Fellowship and I am immensely looking forward to using this opportunity for the advancement and application of computational glycobiology. The extraordinary academic freedom that is provided by the Fellowship and its mission to stray from the well-trodden path – supplemented with sufficient funding to make this actually possible – are crucial to build a bridge between disciplines. By connecting machine learning and glycobiology, I am confident that we will be able to pull back the curtain on our knowledge a bit more, unveiling the inner workings of biology and facilitating biomedical therapies of tomorrow,” said Bojar.
The Branco Weiss Fellowship is a worldwide fellowship program coordinated by ETH Zurich. It provides a platform for exceptionally qualified researchers from all disciplines demonstrating a willingness to engage in a dialogue on relevant social, cultural, political, or economic issues across the frontiers of their particular discipline. Branco Weiss Fellows are expected to present novel approaches in their research, departing from the mainstream.
Bojar’s research at the Wyss Institute focuses on glycans — branching sugar molecules that cover the surfaces of every biological entity, from bacteria and viruses to human cells, and influence the function of all proteins that carry them, and the function of cells and organisms in both health and disease. Despite their ubiquity and importance, glycans remain poorly understood, as their variable structures and lack of a common “alphabet” (like the A, G, C, and T nucleotides that make up DNA) make them incredibly complex.
Bojar is working to overcome this obstacle and transform glycobiology into a discipline that is predictable, unlocking its insights for biomedical applications. He was the first researcher to devise, develop, and apply methods derived from deep learning and natural language processing to glycans, learning the rules and grammar of the “third language of life,” next to DNA and proteins. Taming the incredible complexity of glycans, these models now can extract functions from glycan sequences and aid in understanding the roles glycans play in biology.
Supported by the Branco Weiss Fellowship, Bojar is now taking on the ambitious task of translating these methods to the biomedical realm by developing glycan-based antibiotics and antivirals using machine learning models. He is also applying his expertise to the Biostasis project and efforts to identify drugs that can be repurposed to treat or prevent COVID-19.
“We are extremely proud of Daniel’s accomplishments, and this honor is a fitting recognition of his talent and willingness to tackle complex problems, rather than choosing an easier path. We look forward to the insights and contributions he will uncover to advance biology over the next five years,” said the Wyss Institute’s Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).