August 3, 2020 – The Michelson Medical Research Foundation and the Human Vaccines Project are pleased to announce the 2020 Michelson Prizes for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research and support the outstanding research of two young scientists advancing human immunology, vaccine discovery and immunotherapy across major global diseases.

We live in historic times. 2020 will be remembered as the year the world endured an unprecedented pandemic with vast implications on the entire global community. The COVID pandemic has highlighted the critical need for groundbreaking research in immunology and vaccine discovery. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to support and cultivate young scientists advancing the fields of immunology, vaccinology, and immunotherapy. That is why the Michelson Medical Research Foundation and the Human Vaccines Project engage in an annual international search to identify and support the most promising projects from young investigators.

This year’s winners are Danika Hill, a research fellow at Monash University, and Michael Birnbaum, assistant professor at MIT. They will be awarded the 2020 Michelson Prize for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research, receiving $150,000 each.

“Our current system is rigged, making it nearly impossible for a young researcher to get funding,” said Dr. Gary Michelson, founder, and chair of the Michelson Medical Research Foundation. “Even the head of the NIH identified the advancing age at which investigators receive their first NIH grant as ‘the greatest problem facing U.S. science.’ History shows that profound breakthroughs are made by researchers under age 35. We must invest in next-generation scientists who have demonstrated excellence in their field by combining disruptive thinking with a novel scientific approach. My wife Alya and I are proud to help Dr. Hill and Dr. Birnbaum pursue their revolutionary ideas.”

“We need courage, passion, and creativity to achieve true progress in science. It inspires me to see young researchers like Dr. Hill and Dr. Birnbaum display these strengths with their innovative proposals,” says Dr. Wayne Koff, CEO, and president of the Human Vaccine Project. “Only by thinking beyond conventions, we will be able to transform the future of human health. I look forward to seeing how the research of our 2020 Michelson Prize winners will contribute to the Human Vaccine Project’s grand vision of decoding the human immune system.”

Danika Hill and Michael Birnbaum will receive their awards in an open webinar on August 13, 2020, at 9 a.m. EDT. This special two-hour event connects the experts of today with the leaders of tomorrow: Pulitzer Prize winner Laurie Garrett will introduce the winners and preside over the presentation of awards. After the award presentation, Harvard Professor Dr. Dan Barouch will present the latest data set published in Nature with his insights on the pandemic in the Global COVID Lab Meeting, where the Human Vaccines Project connects experts in the field to discuss the latest COVID-19 data. Everybody is welcome to join the event. Register for the webinar here.

About the winners:

Danika Hill – Research Fellow | Department of Immunology and Pathology | Monash University

Danika Hill received the Michelson Prize 2020 for: “Exploiting T Follicular Helper Cells as an Innovative Tool to Discover Targets for Long-Lived Humoral Immunity.”

Dr. Hill aims to find specific antigens responsible for long-lived humoral immunity. With the help of a human Strep A challenge model, she will identify T cell receptor types in circulating T follicular helper cells, which will be used to engineer reporter cell lines to uncover novel vaccine candidates. Dr. Hill uses an innovative approach with clear trans-disease applicability to identify antigens for vaccines or immunotherapy for various infectious diseases, cancer, and autoimmunity.

Dr. Danika Hill

“The Michelson Prize comes at a critical point in my career,” says Dr. Hill. “It will enable me to pursue my own research directions and enable me to follow-up on some exciting discoveries that I’ve made. It’s my hope that with this project we can better understand what to pinpoint when we design vaccines in order to generate these T follicular helper cells that are so essential for good vaccine responses.”

Michael Birnbaum – Assistant Professor | Department of Biological Engineering | MIT

Michael Birnbaum received the Michelson Prize 2020 for: “Repertoire-Scale Determination of T Cell Recognition and Cross-Reactivity to HIV via pMHC Lentiviral Display.”

Dr. Birnbaum proposes to expedite and perfect the process of vaccine antigen selection. He is using HIV ‘elite controllers’ to identify which antigens their immune system successfully targets. By working with a lentiviral display, he can identify specific antigens which might be ideal targets for use in HIV vaccines. Dr. Birnbaum’s method can easily be expanded to various other diseases, including infectious diseases, cancer, and autoimmunity.

“The support provided by this award will let us work faster than would be possible otherwise. We will be trying many of our best ideas at once to press this technology into service, in a time where better tools to study infectious disease are clearly needed.”

Dr. Michael Birnbaum

Applications for the 2021 Michelson Prizes for Human Immunology and Vaccine Research will open on September 9, 2020. Learn more here.


About the Michelson Medical Research Foundation
The Michelson Medical Research Foundation (MMRF) is funded by philanthropists Gary and Alya Michelson. For more information, visit: 

About the Human Vaccines Project
The Human Vaccines Project is a bold public-private initiative that aims to decode the human immune system to make the next leap forward in human health. Pioneering a new era in health, the Human Vaccines Project will enable the creation of next-generation vaccines, diagnostics, and therapies across diseases. For more information, visit:

For more information:
Bernadette Mittermeier

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