Now in its nineteenth year, the $500,000 prize is awarded annually to an outstanding mid-career inventor dedicated to improving the world through technological invention. Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy in Materials Science and Biological Engineering at MIT and a faculty member at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, will accept the award at the Lemelson-MIT Program's EurekaFest later this month. She also will speak about emerging technologies at the MIT Technology Review-hosted EmTech MIT conference in October.
A materials chemist, Belcher draws inspiration from nature to create novel organic-inorganic materials that have both commercial and social value. She was motivated initially by the abalone shell, which developed over some fifty million years and is 98 percent calcium carbonate — an inorganic compound — and 2 percent organic protein. The combination makes it three thousand times tougher than its geological analog. Inspired by what the abalone sea snail achieved over time, Belcher invented a process in which the DNA of benign bacterial-specific viruses is genetically engineered to interact with a range of inorganic materials. The process has been used, among other things, to create a biologically based battery and improve the efficiency of solar cells.
Currently, Belcher is working to develop materials to purify water for the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and energy industries. She also is pioneering methods in the use of nanotechnology to image early-stage cancers and improve outcomes following cancer surgery. Among other things, she plans to use a portion of her prize money to develop outreach programming focused on getting others, especially youth, excited about science.
"Angela Belcher is an extraordinary inventor. She has taken a single idea and applied it to develop a remarkable portfolio of inventions that span a multitude of industries and will ultimately benefit business, society, and the environment," said Lemelson-MIT Program executive director Joshua Schuler. "Most impressive is that Angela never fails to remember the immense value of youth mentorship and its ability to inspire the next generation of inventors who, like Angela herself, will continue to improve the world through their discoveries."