GSA member Houra Merrikh has been honored with the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. Established in 2009, the award recognizes individuals born outside of the U.S. who have demonstrated outstanding early achievement and who often face significant challenges early in their career.


Houra Merrikh

Houra Merrikh (Credit: Peter Hurley)

Houra Merrikh, PhD
Assistant Professor of Microbiology
University of Washington


Merrikh was born in Iran but fled to Turkey with her family as a three-year-old. The family applied for green cards to emigrate to the U.S., but there would be a long delay. Thirteen years later, she finally was able to move to Texas without her family. Merrikh enrolled in community college, waiting tables and selling cars to make ends meet. In 1999, she enrolled at the University of Houston and caught the research bug.

After graduation, she worked as a technician in a plant genetics at Boston University before entering a PhD program at Brandeis University. Working with former GSA Board member Susan Lovett, Merrikh discovered that DNA damage triggers a cascade of events that helps actively dividing cells survive onslaughts on its DNA. She then moved across town for a postdoc at MIT, studying the mechanisms of DNA replication in bacteria, finding keys to its control and discovering that the replication machinery can run into the transcription apparatus even when the two are moving in the same direction.

Since beginning her faculty position at the University of Washington, Merrikh has continued investigating the inherent conflict between transcription and DNA replication, as both processes compete for access to the DNA template. Working mostly with Bacillus subtilis, her lab uses tools such as in vivo single molecule microscopy, deep sequencing, whole genome bioinformatics analyses, and standard genetics and molecular biology techniques.

Three such $50,000 prizes are awarded each year by the Vilcek Foundation, which was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia.

Applications for the 2017 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise are now open, with a deadline of June 10, 2016. Applicants must be born outside the U.S. to non-American parents on or after January 1, 1978, and be pursuing an independent professional position in the U.S.


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Adam Fagen was formerly Executive Director of the Genetics Society of America.

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