Dr. Ilya J. Finkelstein, biochemist involved in COVID-19 vaccine exploration, honored for advancements in chemical research

Houston, TX – February 23 – The Welch Foundation today announced that Dr. Ilya J. Finkelstein will be the recipient of the 2021 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. Having already made significant scientific contributions in chemistry and biochemistry, Dr. Finkelstein is being recognized as a ‘rising star’ in his field. 

“Dr. Finkelstein has made extraordinary accomplishments and is well deserving of this award,” said Carin M. Barth, Chair, The Welch Foundation Board of Directors.  “This honor is timely given his leadership and work surrounding the optimization and production of the spike protein, a critical component in some COVID-19 vaccine formulations.”  

An Associate Professor in the Molecular Biosciences Department at The University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Finkelstein is well regarded for his innovative methods to understand how cells repair their DNA and maintain integrity of genetic information. Dr. Finkelstein and his team have merged next-generation DNA sequencing with molecular biophysics to characterize and improve emerging gene-editing tools, known as RNA-guided CRISPR-Cas enzymes. By unraveling their molecular functions, he hopes to improve the efficacy and safety of gene editing. 

Most recently,  Dr. Finkelstein shifted his team’s focus and developed a critical reagent for SARS-CoV-2 vaccine development. His group, in collaboration with two other University of Texas labs, worked tirelessly to optimize the production of the viral spike protein, a critical component of some COVID-19 vaccine formulations. Dr. Finkelstein is also on a team of UT faculty who have been working with clinicians in Houston to understand how COVID-19 is mutating by reviewing blood plasma of 5,000 patients. 

“It is truly an honor to join the extraordinary list of fellow scientists who have previously received the Hackerman Award,” said Dr. Finkelstein. “This is such a momentous time for our lab and fellow UT researchers, and I look forward to continuing our efforts developing an even better understanding of the coronavirus as well as our focus on gene editing.”

“Dr. Finkelstein is a distinguished and impressive biophysicist,” said Peter B. Dervan, Chair, The Welch Foundation Scientific Advisory Board.  “His creativity in the lab continues to move the field forward with cutting-edge research and discoveries related to DNA repair and CRISPR gene editing. Dr. Finkelstein’s recent COVID-19 research also shines light on the importance of ongoing and proactive basic chemical research.”

After receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Finkelstein went on to earn his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Stanford University. He joined the University of Texas at Austin in 2012 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. In 2019 he became an Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology. Among his awards and honors, he has been recognized as a William H. Tonn Professorial Fund Fellow; an American Federation of Aging Research Junior Fellow; an Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas Protégé; a CPRIT Fellow in Cancer Research; and as an Emerging Investigator by the Molecular BioSystems Journal. He received the National Science Foundation CAREER and Pathway to Independence Awards, and his group has been published in a number of journals including Science, Cell and Nature. Dr. Finkelstein speaks at national and international seminars and meetings regularly and is recognized across the globe by the scientific community.

The Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research was established by The Welch Foundation to honor Norman Hackerman, its Scientific Advisory Board chair from 1982 to 2006. The award recognizes the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their careers. It is designed to encourage scientists who are embarking on careers dedicated to increasing our fundamental understanding of chemistry. Upon accepting the award, Dr. Finkelstein will receive $100,000, as well as a bronze sculpture to commemorate the occasion. 

Since 1954, the Houston-based Welch Foundation has contributed more than $1 billion to the advancement of chemistry through research grants, departmental research grants, endowed chairs and support for other chemistry-related programs in Texas. For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Hackerman Award recipients, please visit www.welch1.org.

For more information on the Foundation and a list of previous Hackerman Award recipients, please visit www.welch1.org.

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