Arup K. Chakraborty is now a member of all three National Academies: Science, Engineering, and Medicine

There are only 21 people in America who have been elected to the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Medicine—organizations that include the top scientists and researchers in the world. Two members of that short list earned their doctoral degrees at the University of Delaware.

In October, Arup K. Chakraborty, director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and Robert T. Haslam Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earned his third National Academies membership with his election to the National Academy of Medicine. Rakesh Jain, the Andrew Werk Cook Professor of Tumor Biology at Harvard University, earned his third National Academies membership in 2009.

Both earned doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from UD.

“I have often insisted that to know how good a program or university truly is, look at the students they produce,” said Babatunde Ogunnaike, dean of UD’s College of Engineering. “We are delighted by this uniquely rare achievement by two of our former students.”

Only Harvard University has awarded more doctoral degrees — three — to eventual winners of this prestigious triple crown. MIT, Oxford, and the California Institute of Technology also have two doctoral alumni that belong to all three academies.

“It’s a wonderful testament to the fact that Delaware recruits and trains exceptional students, and those students often dream big,” said Eric Furst, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “Both Arup and Rakesh Jain have set high bars of achievement and have also contributed back to our discipline. They pioneered important problems of biotechnology and medicine, mirroring the department’s own development of biomolecular engineering as one of the core strengths of our education and scholarship. “

Arup K. Chakraborty’s impact on immunology

At MIT, Chakraborty’s research group uses statistical mechanics and chemical kinetics to uncover mysteries of immunology, especially adaptive immunity, the part of the immune system that targets and destroys harmful germs in a pathogen-specific way. Much of their research is focused on the fundamental biology of T cells and B cells, which fight infection. They also aim to harness this knowledge of immunology and virology to aid the rational design of vaccines that can protect humans from being infected by highly mutable pathogens, such as HIV, a virus that is notoriously hard to kill.

Chakraborty says this research lies “at the interface of disciplines,” including immunology, the physical sciences, engineering and medicine.

“To me this recognition is a sign that this sort of work is beginning to be appreciated, and more importantly for me, it means that the next generation of scientists and engineers who work at the interface of disciplines will be recognized, and their work will be recognized,” he said.

Before he started researching immunology 18 years ago, Chakraborty was a leader in another field, the interface of quantum mechanics and chemical engineering.

His journey into health-related research began while he was a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. A post-doctoral student showed Chakraborty a paper on immunology, thinking that its findings might be related to Chakraborty’s past research. The paper fascinated Chakraborty, but he knew it had nothing to do with his past work.

The next year, Chakraborty had a Miller Research Professorship at Berkeley, which gives faculty members time to explore new research pursuits.

“I decided that since I had more time I would spend a week, just for fun, trying to understand this paper in immunology,” he said. The week turned into months as he continuously looked up terms and concepts that were new to him. He gradually realized that he might have something to contribute to the line of research in that paper after all. With a small grant and the help of a post-doc, he got to work.

He shared his first findings at a major biology conference—with a poster presentation, a format typically fit more for graduate students than full professors.

“It was a hugely rejuvenating experience for me to feel that I was again at the beginning of something,” he said. “Very lucky things happened. Two of the main very senior and great scientists in immunology who were thinking about this problem came to my poster. Then even a luckier thing happened that two of them decided to test my theoretical prediction. And then the luckiest thing of all happened, which was that we were right.”

Chakraborty decided to continue on this research path. For several years, he focused on basic immunology, and since 2009, he has also put major effort into rational design of vaccines against highly mutable pathogens, especially HIV.

His research on HIV was motivated by a trip to clinics in South Africa. He traveled there in 2008 with Dr. Bruce Walker, director of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 1 in every 25 adults has HIV, according to the World Health Organization.

“Unless you’ve gone there, I’m pretty sure you do not have any understanding of the scale of the devastation that still happens in sub-saharan Africa, especially the region around Durban,” he said.

Designing a vaccine against HIV is a huge challenge.

“No medical procedure has saved more lives than vaccination,” he said. “But some pathogens have evolved that defy successful vaccination using the empirical paradigms pioneered by Pasteur and Jenner over 200 years ago.”

Chakraborty stays humble as he works on one of the world’s most difficult problems.

“Recognition and accomplishment are not synonyms,” he said. “I’m completely aware of the fact that many people who are very deserving do not get the sort of recognition that I’ve gotten, and I feel that I am very lucky to have gotten that.”

Building a foundation in Delaware

When Chakraborty came to the University of Delaware in 1983, he didn’t know anyone in the U.S. He was 21 and had just earned his bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.

“Delaware was my first home in this country, and I was welcomed and treated extraordinarily well,” he said. “It was not just a place where I learned and got a degree; it was also a place where I learned about America, the place that made me feel that this is where I wanted to spend my life.”

Even as a graduate student in chemical engineering, Chakraborty gravitated toward interdisciplinary work—something his professors did not discourage.

His thesis, which focused on methods to separate carbon dioxide from other gases using amines, involved a rich mix of experiments and quantum mechanical calculations.

“At that time I believe that I was the first person who really started bringing quantum mechanical theory and computation to chemical engineering problems,” he said.

Now he is a member of UD’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering advisory council.

“I have nothing but good things to say about the intellectual atmosphere as well as all the aspects of the doctoral program at Delaware,” he said.

After earning his doctoral degree at UD, Chakraborty was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota. He joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1988 before joining the MIT faculty in 2005.

In addition to the National Academies, Chakraborty is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He has received many honors, such as a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award, the E.O. Lawrence Memorial Award for Life Sciences, the Allan P. Colburn and Professional Progress awards of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award. He has also received four awards from students for his classroom teaching.

In 2005, Chakraborty received UD’s Presidential Citation for Outstanding Achievement, an honor bestowed upon graduates of the past 20 years who “exhibit great promise in their professional and public service activities.”