This year, three Harvard-affiliated researchers have won the TR35 award. Two of the three winners are pictured: danah boyd (left) and Timothy K. Lu.

Photos by Harvard Staff Photographers

Campus & Community

Under 35, and at the top

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Three young Harvard-affiliated researchers win awards

Since 1999, Technology Review magazine has recognized the best, the brightest — and the youngest — technical minds. The magazine assembles an annual list of 35 top innovators under age 35.

This year, three Harvard-affiliated researchers won the award, known as the TR35. They were selected from a field of 300 nominees.

“We celebrate their success,” said magazine editor Jason Pontin of the young and promising 35, who this year come from the United States, China, France, Germany, India, and Switzerland. At least 15 of the 35 have university affiliations; the rest are from industry.

An official announcement from Technology Review, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: “Their work — spanning medicine, computing, communications, nanotechnology, and more — is changing our world.”

The Harvard winners alone cover much imaginative technical ground.

Alán Aspuru-Guzik, 34, is an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard. He led a team of theoretical chemists who helped to design the first quantum computer capable of precise simulations of chemical systems. When scaled up, quantum computers running Aspuru-Guzik’s algorithms could predict the properties of materials or drug candidates exactly. With current computers, researchers settle for approximate solutions.

The work could one day inspire computers that are much faster and more efficient than present-day models based on binary computing. The implications are vast, affecting fields as diverse as Internet cryptography and materials science.

Winner danah boyd, 32, is a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her work focuses on the intersection of technology and society, most notably how American teenagers use social media.

She’s writing a book that will focus on eight myths about teenagers and technology. Her fieldwork with teens, boyd said, often results in her subjects calling her with a request: “Can you talk to my mom?”

Timothy K. Lu, M.D. ’10, 29, is an assistant professor of electrical engineering at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics. His work brings synthetic biology to bear on some intractable health care problems, including the ubiquity of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Lu is a biologist, engineer, and computer scientist, raised in Taiwan. He studied in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology program, and in 2008 received his Ph.D. in medical engineering and medical physics from MIT. He’s looking into ways of engineering robust, large-scale biological systems.

Last year, only one Harvard-affiliated researcher won a TR35.

“I knew I was nominated,” said Aspuru-Guzik, “but it was still a surprise to get it.” The news was especially good, he said, because a close friend from undergraduate school in Mexico City — open-source pioneer Miguel de Icaza — was among the first winners in 1999.

“I’m super-delighted, I’m super-honored,” said boyd, who was surprised to be recognized because she’s not a traditional inventor.

Lu was setting up his MIT lab this summer when he got the word on his Blackberry. But he was too busy with a vendor for the news to sink in. “I was happy afterwards. I called my wife,” said Lu.

Aspuru-Guzik was sure that the award came mainly from his quantum computing work. (He developed the conceptual algorithm underlying a computer, and helped with the design of the experiment carried out in Australia.)

He is excited about some of his latest work with the Clean Energy Project. His team is using computational chemistry to search for just the right molecules to make cheap, flexible, organic, photovoltaic cells.