Michael Birnbaum, PhD

Assistant Professor, MIT

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

Dr. Birnbaum’s research focuses on understanding and manipulating ‘natural’ adaptive immune responses in the context of cancer and infection by using a variety of strategies and techniques including protein biochemistry, protein engineering, sequencing, and bioinformatics. Applying a novel approach, he systematically examines the antigen recognition repertoire of any given T or NK cell receptor and uses this information to engineer new methods to more specifically mount a potent immune response.

Dr. Birnbaum obtained an A.B. in Chemical and Physical Biology at Harvard University in 2008. He then moved to Stanford University, where he completed his Ph.D. in Immunology in 2014, followed by postdoctoral research. Dr. Birnbaum joined the Department of Biological Engineering at MIT in 2016 as an Assistant Professor.

What has been your most impactful scientific finding so far?

I worked to develop a method that better lets us uncover what T cells recognize during the course of disease. We use it to vet hundreds of millions of possible T cell targets at once. It has allowed us to help define the ‘rules’ of how T cells can recognize the billions of possible targets that one may encounter in their life without inadvertently attacking healthy tissues.

Why did you become a scientist/immunologist?

I have always been fascinated by the numbers game inherent to immunology – your body has millions of unique T and B cells to respond to disease, tasked with protecting you against any infection you may encounter in your life. The molecular diversity needed to make this work – and the tight control of that diversity – has kept me interested in immunology my entire scientific career.

How will the Michelson Prize help you in your future research?

The Michelson Prize is funding our development and deployment of a technology that would supercharge our ability to define what T cells recognize during the course of HIV infection. 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.