Vilcek Foundation Honors Professor Thomas Jessell for Biomedical Research

January 27, 2014

The Vilcek Foundation named Thomas M. Jessell as the winner of the 2014 Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science. Awarded annually, the prizes honor the contributions of immigrants to the American arts and sciences, and include $100,000 cash awards. Dr. Jessell, the Claire Tow professor in the departments of Neuroscience and Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics at Columbia, was selected for his pioneering work in discovering the principles of the molecular mechanisms that direct neuronal diversity and circuit assembly in the vertebrate central nervous system.

“We are honored to bestow the Vilcek Prize for Biomedical Science on such a groundbreaking figure in the field of neuroscience,” said Jan Vilcek, president of the Vilcek Foundation. “His work has opened up many new avenues of inquiries into one of the most unknown—and important—fields of biomedical research.”

Dr. Jessel’s research investigates the developmental assembly of the vertebrate central nervous system and has broadened the study of mammalian neural development from a descriptive science to a molecular and mechanistic one. Jessell’s lab focuses not only on understanding the logic of the motor system organization, but also on combining neuro-computation and bio-mechanics studies to elucidate how the nervous system interacts with the skeletal muscle control system. His work has shed light on developmental abnormalities in the central nervous system and has paved the way for new treatment possibilities, using neural stem cells, for degenerative diseases affecting motor neurons and for spinal cord injuries.

Dr. Jessell is co-director of Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, which will have its home in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center at Columbia's new Manhattanville campus. The center, which is scheduled to open in 2016 will foster a multidisciplinary environment for innovative work in the brain sciences. Jessell’s work has received numerous honors, including the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience and Canada’s Gairdner International Award. He is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a co-director of the Columbia/Kavli Institute for Brain Science, a fellow of the Royal Society, a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the Institute of Medicine.

Jessell completed his Ph.D. in neuropharmacology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and came to the United States in 1978 as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of neurobiologist Gerald Fischbach, at Harvard University. He took a faculty position in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School, and in 1985 was appointed as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Columbia University in New York City.

Vilcek prizewinners are selected by panels of independent experts in the field of biomedical science. All prizewinners will be honored at a ceremony in New York City in April 2014.
—Photo by Jill LeVine