PASADENA, Calif. — Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiology expert at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) whose studies of human gut bacteria have revealed new insights into how these microbes can be beneficial, was named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded a five-year, $500,000 grant. Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards the unrestricted fellowships — also known as “genius” grants — to individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction,” according to the foundation’s website.
“I was in a state of shock when I heard the news,” said Mazmanian, a professor of biology at Caltech, who was tricked into taking the award announcement call; he thought he was simply being added to a prescheduled conference call. “It’s not the kind of thing you ever expect — I do what I do because I love science and it makes me happy, so this is terrific and a nice reward. At the same time, I never think of awards as goals of mine because they seem so unattainable. My goals are to make discoveries, so I was just in absolute disbelief.”
Long before he was named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, Mazmanian was showing the attributes that the foundation seeks to reward, particularly a capacity for self-direction. As a graduate student in the early 2000s, he decided to stray from the normal path of study and try something new.
“I had been studying microbial pathogenesis — or bacteria that make us sick — which is what 99.9 percent of the field of microbiology does to this day,” said Mazmanian. “Toward the end of my PhD, I decided that I wanted to study organisms that didn’t necessarily cause disease, but were associated with our bodies. Ten years ago, this was completely on the fringe of science — we knew that the organisms existed in our intestines and all over our bodies, but had no idea what they were doing.”
Today, Mazmanian’s work examines some of the trillions of bacteria living in human bodies that make up complex communities of microbes and regulate
processes like digestion and immunity. His main focus is to understand how “good” bacteria promote human health — work that has transformed a quickly-evolving field of research that is investigating the connection between gut bacteria and their relationship to both disease and health.