Alexander Banks, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, is the 2022 recipient of the Armen H. Tashjian Jr. Award for Excellence in Endocrine Research. The award recognizes his advances in standardizing data analysis for obesity research.
At a May 19, 2022 award ceremony and seminar at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Banks shared his work to address a longstanding challenge in studying body mass and metabolism, or energy use — simplistic and inconsistent data analysis. “This has been plaguing the field of obesity and metabolism research, where people have these prior notions of what should be happening to metabolism and will adjust their data appropriately to try to make that happen,” he said. “This is creating what some have called a reproducibility crisis.”
Over time, the field of obesity and metabolism research has moved toward more accurate but increasingly complex data analysis, according to Banks. To simplify and standardize the process, he developed a web-based tool to make it easier to visualize data, run calculations, and share results. Because the tool now enables researchers across the field to readily compare results, they can more easily investigate overarching questions about the genetic, environmental, and pharmacological factors that affect obesity.
“What used to take me about eight hours — and I’d have to go through with manual curation — you can really get in under 10 minutes,” Banks said. “Today, more than 35,000 experiments have been run using this program, which is shocking to me. I had no idea that so many people had exactly the same problem that I do.”
“The award committee unanimously selected Banks to be this year’s recipient due to the high standards … and the impact of his research,” said Brendan Manning, professor of molecular metabolism and acting chair of the Department of Molecular Metabolism.
The award honors the late Armen Tashjian Jr., who was professor of toxicology, emeritus, in the Department of Molecular Metabolism. He led Harvard Chan School’s toxicology program for nearly three decades. The annual award recognizes promising young faculty members and fellows who are pursuing innovative research in basic biomedical sciences relevant to endocrinology.
Banks said that he has worked with or known all of the award recipients to date. “They’re all super nice people, wonderful collaborators, in addition to being superb scientists,” he said. “I feel like that is the legacy of this award. I feel tremendously honored to be part of that group.”