CMU alumnus receives National Medal of Technology and Innovation for research

Julia Eve Napolitano Jan 24, 2016

On December 22, the White House named Jonathan Rothberg, a Carnegie Mellon University alumnus and trustee, one of eight recipients of the 2016 National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation, created in 1980 by the United States Department of Commerce’s Patent and Trademark Office, is the nation’s highest honor for technical achievement. According to the White House, the award recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to America’s competitiveness and quality of life and helped strengthen the Nation’s technological workforce.

Rothberg, who holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in biology from Yale University and an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is being recognized for pioneering what has come to be known as Next Generation Sequencing, a method of DNA sequencing that has greatly increased the speed and efficiency of analyzing genomes and decoding DNA.

“My motivation for developing high-speed ways to understand a person’s genetic makeup was personal. I wanted to know why my son was having difficulty breathing,” Rothberg said. “I’m gratified that answering this question allowed me to take a journey with the most creative engineers, scientists, and physicians to impact the lives of people we love. I am excited to see Next Generation Sequencing help heal, feed, fuel, and secure the world by giving researchers a tool to answer some of our greatest challenges including understanding and treating cancer and other devastating diseases.”

Previously, the sequencing approach used by the Human Genome Project took ten years and relied on an approach that did not scale well. In order to address these issues, Rothberg began exploring ways to miniaturize the process. Instead of the tens of reactions that DNA sequencing was previously limited to, Rothberg’s invention enabled geneticists to perform tens of millions of sequencing reactions in parallel. All reactions take place on a small single substrate, which reduces the cost of sequencing DNA more than a million fold.

Next Generation Sequencing is now a central tool in life science research, from agriculture to environmental studies, and is starting to play a key role in both a researcher’s ability to understand disease and a physician’s ability to treat it.

In addition to receiving this award, Rothberg is the first person to be named a World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneer four separate times; he is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and he received The Wall Street Journal’s First Gold Medal for Innovation. He also received Nature Methods’s first Method of the Year Award, The Irvington Institute’s Corporate Leadership Award in Science, the Connecticut Medal of Technology, and the DGKL Biochemical Analysis Prize.

Rothberg is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, a life trustee of Carnegie Mellon University, and an Adjunct Professor of Genetics at the Yale School of Medicine. He is also the founder of several successful companies, including 454 Life Science, CuraGen, Ion Torrent, Raindance Technologies, Hyperfine Research, Butterfly Network Inc., LAM Therapeutics, and 4Catalyzer.

“We congratulate Jonathan on this important honor,” said Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh in a university press release. “Jonathan’s work embodies the culture of Carnegie Mellon – finding innovative solutions to scientific challenges that make a real difference in the world.”

The recipients of the award will receive their medals during a White House ceremony early this year.