Michael Springer and Raj Chetty.
Campus & Community

Springer, Chetty win Ledlie Prize

7 min read

Biologist created better, faster COVID test system; economist uses big data to uncover myths, barriers to achieving American Dream

One raced to create a better, faster test system to help deal with the spread of COVID; the other wielded big data to break myths about who achieves the American Dream and the obstacles faced by others.

For those achievements, the University has awarded the coveted George Ledlie Prize to biologist Michael Springer and economist Raj Chetty. Last given out in 2021 to Dan Barouch of Harvard Medical School for his work developing a vaccine for COVID-19, the honor is bestowed no more frequently than every two years to a member of the Harvard community who has, “since the last awarding of said prize, by research, discovery, or otherwise, made the most valuable contribution to science, or in any way for the benefit of mankind.”

“Mike and Raj are distinguished researchers who have greatly advanced their respective scientific fields. But they are also committed to improving the well-being of other people, now and in the future,” said University Provost and Chief Academic Officer Alan M. Garber. “Mike’s research and innovation has had a profound impact on the way the University, and society at large, have responded to and managed the COVID-19 pandemic. And Raj’s groundbreaking work on economic mobility and his efforts to share this data with policymakers are making the American Dream more accessible to all.”

Springer, professor of systems biology at HMS, was honored for developing a more streamlined coronavirus testing system used by Harvard and MIT. He also helped design and operate the new Harvard University Clinical Laboratory (HUCL), which managed testing and samples.

Springer said he was working on developing an at-home influenza test when the pandemic hit. After that it was all-hands-on-deck for his team, with the group sometimes eating all three meals together on a given day.

“We were in the lab 80 to 100 hours a week. It was both exciting and tense,” he said.

The team initially focused on modifying their at-home influenza test to detect COVID-19. They then turned their attention to high-throughput processes that would be suitable for testing tens of thousands of samples per day.

To do this, a swab, co-developed with Richard Novak at the Wyss Institute, was created to allow for collection of samples compatible with semi-automated accessioning and processing with robots. In addition, the swab did not require liquid transport media, greatly simplifying logistics.

In its first year of operation, the lab ran over 2.2 million COVID-19 tests, while greatly reducing cost per test.

“There were a lot of little things that we needed to innovate on and connect together to make the HUCL lab work,” Springer said. “There wasn’t any one thing, but it was kind of like 10 things that all together really made this something different than what had been done before.”

As COVID testing needs have declined, Springer has branched out to work on expanding at-home collection-based tests for other diseases.

“I think that there’s a lot of potential in that space,” Springer said. “I’m working with people in the industry and thinking in general about how we can make testing more accessible, better, and cheaper.”

With Pamela Silver, Springer recently co-founded an institute at HMS, the Synthetic Biology HIVE. The HIVE is focused on addressing urgent practical questions in areas such as sustainability and pandemic preparedness.

He said he was surprised by the award, but also grateful.

“It’s an incredible honor to have your own community where you work, basically saying you really did something that was important for our community and beyond, and it really had a big impact and to be acknowledged for that,” Springer said. “Especially when I was not doing anything to get acknowledged. It was kind of head-down, let’s solve this problem.”

Chetty is the William A. Ackman Professor of Economics at Harvard University and director of Opportunity Insights, a group of economists based at Harvard who study inequality.

Using anonymized tax records, Opportunity Insights constructed the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool that maps out economic outcomes for children across the U.S. to highlight which neighborhoods seem to offer the best chance to rise from poverty. The Atlas, which can be viewed free online, uses multigenerational data from 70,000 neighborhoods across America.

Chetty said he became interested in this work because of his own background coming to the U.S. from India with his parents when he was 9 years old. He said he saw the disparities not only between New Delhi and the U.S., but also between himself and his cousins.

“My parents, who grew up in very low-income families and villages in South India … the opportunities they had were greatly shaped by the fact that they happened to be the ones who were picked to get a higher education in their families.”

Chetty said it was common at that time in developing countries that a family would pick only one child to get advanced education because they couldn’t afford to educate all the kids.

“And it so happened to be that my mom was the one chosen in her family, and my dad was the one chosen in his family,” he said. “And I could kind of see how that’s played out through the generations in my own family, through the opportunities my cousins have had versus what I’ve had … ending up here at Harvard and the various opportunities I’ve had, I felt have stemmed from that.”

The work of Opportunity Insights is focused on helping policymakers and economists understand the real-life factors behind economic mobility and pave the way for new approaches to make the American Dream available to all. His work applies a big-data approach to the science of economic opportunity — providing granular insights in much the same way that a microscope does for the biological sciences.

Chetty said one of the most impactful outcomes they’ve been able to observe is the role geography plays in children’s outcomes.

“There are some places in America where kids with the exact same background have much better chances of rising up,” he said. “There are other places where they look much worse. So that was interesting in and of its own right, because it teaches you something about the origins of economic opportunity, that it really matters where you grow up. It’s about your community, schools, and neighborhood.

“It speaks to the old debates about nature versus nurture and shows that nurture matters quite a bit, but environment matters quite a bit above and beyond genetics and things like that,” he added.

Chetty’s earlier work focused on the fading American Dream, neighborhood variation, and the role of childhood environment as a key driver of economic mobility. He has since gone on to explore other factors, including the role of racial disparities and social capital and connections. This has led to research on public-policy levers — reducing racial and economic segregation, investing in place-based policies, and strengthening higher education — to increase equity and opportunity.

Chetty notes that already, real-world impacts are being seen from this research. For one, the Housing and Urban Development Agency has redesigned some affordable-housing policies to increase access to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, and several cities have undertaken new job-training programs as part of broader place-based initiatives.

Chetty said the recognition of his work with the Ledlie prize has meant a lot in part because of its recognition of economics as a science.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to push toward is making economics more of a science and viewed as a scientific field where it’s not just about making different assumptions and you have one view and I have another view and we kind of have a political debate but really grounded in data, grounded in empirical science,” he said.

He added, thinking about his mother, a pulmonologist, “coming from a family of people in natural sciences it was especially meaningful.”