Pamela Björkman, the David Baltimore Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering and a Merkin Institute Professor, has been named the recipient of the 2021 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, a major international award recognizing outstanding women scientists and presented by The Rockefeller University. Björkman is being recognized for "discovering key aspects of the immune system that are helping to direct better treatment for infection from viruses and other diseases," according to the university's press release.
As a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University in the 1980s, Björkman used X-ray crystallography to reveal the molecular architecture of a major histocompatibility complex protein, a key component of the immune system. This breakthrough provided structural information that has helped to explain how the immune system distinguishes self from nonself—information that is key to understanding autoimmunity, transplant rejection, and pathogen recognition.
Today, at Caltech, Björkman is noted for her use of crystallography, cryo-electron microscopy, and biochemistry to study the atomic structures of proteins that mediate the immune system's interactions with viruses such as HIV and, recently, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Björkman has also received the Gairdner Award, the William B. Coley Award, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Award, the Max Planck Research Award, the Rose Payne Distinguished Scientist Award, the L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award, and an NIH Director's Pioneer Award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science.
The Pearl Meister Greengard Prize was founded by the late Paul Greengard, the Vincent Astor Professor of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at Rockefeller, and his wife, Ursula von Rydingsvard, an internationally renowned sculptor with works in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and other venues. A lifelong advocate for gender equality, Greengard donated his monetary share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Rockefeller and helped to establish an annual award to recognize outstanding women scientists. The prize, which includes a $100,000 honorarium, is named for Greengard's mother, who died during his birth.