Harmit Singh Malik describes his scientific research as an “evolutionary arms race,” whose combatants are microscopic genes, each battling to attain evolutionary dominance over its neighbors and, in so doing, assure its long-term survival.He traces the evolutionary histories of genes from different organisms, in order to understand the biological forces that shape essential DNA elements.
Malik places a high value on being intellectually fearless — not to be afraid of being wrong. He earned a bachelor’s degree in the chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, but recognized his strong preference for biology while an undergraduate. An introductory course in molecular biology — in particular, the topic of transposons (“jumping genes”) — cemented his new direction and provided the impetus for his immigration from India to the United States in 1993.
He accepted the offer of a prestigious Sproull Fellowship from the University of Rochester, New York, where he quickly proved himself, even winning accolades for teaching an introductory genetics course he had never taken himself. His research focus at this time was on retrotransposons, “selfish” genes, which exploit host organisms to self-perpetuate. His findings essentially rewrote retrotransposon history, demonstrating that these genes were present in evolutionarily ancestral species — not, as believed by most geneticists at the time, spread from one organism to another, like viruses.
In 1999, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle, he began postdoc work with investigator Steven Henikoff on centromeres (repetitive sequences of DNA that do not code for proteins), advancing his hypotheses on evolutionary gene conflict.
Today Malik is an associate member of the FHCRC Basic Sciences division and head of his own lab. His future plans include investigating genes identified in the expression of genome-wide association screens for predisposition to cancers.
Awards and Accomplishments
- Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (2009)
- Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist Award (2009)
- National Science Foundation Career Award (2008–2013)