A Genius Among Us

Jason Buenrostro ’09 is the first SCU grad to be named a MacArthur Fellow, aka a “Genius.”

There’s a genius in the Bronco family. Jason Buenrostro ’09 is the first Santa Clara University graduate to be named a MacArthur Fellow. Colloquially called the “Genius Grant,” the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship is an annual prize awarded to about 20 people whose work shows promise on moving the needle on some of the world’s most significant social challenges.

Buenrostro, a first-generation college student who is now an associate professor at Harvard University in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, is researching methods and technologies that advance our understanding of the mechanisms regulating gene expression—the process through which instructions in our DNA are converted into functional products and determine what each cell does.

Think, for a moment, of the cells that make up our bodies as light bulbs. Some bulbs are always on. Others are off until they’re needed for a specific purpose. And sometimes, a bulb malfunctions. It’s lit up when it should be dark. Gene expression, then, is like flipping the light switch that controls each bulb. It’s the process that turns the light on or off.

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2023 MacArthur Fellow Jason Buenrostro ’09 was just a grad student at Stanford when he pioneered a now widely used technique to study how cells regulate gene expression. Photos provided by Buenrostro.

Buenrostro won the MacArthur Fellowship for his development of several new technologies that provide deeper views into how and when genes are turned on. He’s developed DNA sequencing methods to better understand how spatial context impacts cellular function. Keeping cells in their original locations within tissues allows investigation of how different cell types impact and are impacted by surrounding cells.

One such method developed by Buenrostro and colleagues, called slide-DNA-seq, identifies the spatial location of genetic mutations such as cancerous tumors. This method gives researchers a better understanding of the unique evolutionary pathways of cancer cells and of potential treatments. Through tool development and his own research, Buenrostro brings researchers closer to deciphering key genetic mechanisms of cell development and cellular function and to understanding their impact on health.

“I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I had as a student at Santa Clara,” Buenrostro says. “Thank you to all my mentors at SCU for supporting and promoting my projects.”

Associate Professor of Biology Justen Whittall recalls how Buenrostro “cut his teeth in molecular biology and genomics” in his plant evolution lab and co-authored two publications as an undergrad. “Jason’s intellect combined scientific foresight beyond his age and his perseverance was unparalleled. I am grateful to have worked with him at such an early stage in his amazing career,” Whittall says.

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