Sternberg Thesis Prize


In tribute to the character and accomplishments of Nat Sternberg, a thesis prize has been established in his name. Its purpose is to encourage young scientists who give early evidence of perpetuating the salient qualities that were Nat Sternberg’s skill, insight, rigor, and dedication to science.

The Nat Sternberg Thesis Prize will be awarded for outstanding Ph.D. work in the field of bacterial molecular biology. The award will be presented at the annual Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages meeting, at which time the recipient will give a presentation about his or her work. The amount of the award will be ~$750, with the exact amount to be determined by the award committee and the fund manager. The award will provide a travel allowance in addition to the prize and registration for the meeting will be waived. A brief introduction of the year’s winner and the nature of the prize will be presented at the meeting by the Award Committee Chair or a designate. The 2023 meeting will be held in Madison, Wisconsin from Monday, August 7 through Friday, August 11, 2023. Meeting information is available here.

ELIGIBILITY. Nominees must have completed and successfully defended his or her Ph.D. thesis within a 12-month period prior to June 1 of the year of the award (between June 1, 2022 and May 31, 2023). Winners will be required to give a presentation based on their dissertation at the annual Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phages meeting.

SUBMISSION OF NOMINATIONS. Nominations must come from the thesis advisor or a member of the thesis examination committee. We strongly encourage nominations of applicants from diverse backgrounds.

Nominators should send a single collated pdf file containing the following items:
(i) Brief cover letter (<1 page) nominating the individual, including which member of the Award Committee whose area of interest most closely correspond to the topic of the thesis
(ii) Nominee’s curriculum vitae including DOI (digital object identifiers) links for publications and preprints
(iii) Copy of the thesis abstract
(iv) A paragraph describing the significance of the work to the field
(v) Three letters of reference, one of which must be from the thesis advisor, which clearly state the support and reasoning for the nomination of the individual for the Sternberg Thesis Prize

The file should be named as follows: LastName_FirstName_2023.pdf and should be uploaded at: ( The site opens for submission on 4/1/23. Nominations must be received by 5/1/23. Note that only applicants submitted as a single pdf file will be reviewed.

Members of the Award Committee for 2023: Petra Levin, Jason Peters, Peter Chien, Paula Welander, Rut Carballido-López

CALL FOR DONATIONS. Individual and corporate donations to the Nat L. Sternberg Thesis Prize endowment fund are welcome and may be made by contacting Petra Levin (

We acknowledge the generosity of DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Company for supplying the initial seed money, and of the many private individuals who have provided additional support.


Nat Sternberg belonged to that rare breed of scientists whose understanding of biology is at once wide-ranging and profound. Throughout a career that began in phage biology, Nat kept adding to his activities and interests without relinquishing the earlier ones, often creating remarkable amalgams of old and new. Starting his studies with T4, he went on to l and then took up the challenge of P1 phage, largely unexplored at that time. Nat proceeded to illuminate nearly every conceivable aspect of P1s alternative ways of life: immunity, site-specific recombination, plasmid and lytic replication, partitioning, DNA methylation, packaging, transducing particle generation, among others. When Nat became interested in difficult and fundamental problems in eukaryotic biology, he created elegant ways to use a variety of microbiological systems for their resolution. Among the sophisticated tools that Nat devised, his P1 cloning system for large genomic DNA is remarkable for the number and ingenuity of its features.

Several eukaryotic topics engaged Nat’s attention, including recombination, genome mapping, and cancer biology. Characteristically, his last publication, an insightful study of the cellular toxicity of tumoricidal intercalating drugs, is based on simple tests with E. coli. The topic had particular significance for Nat, who engaged in a long and debilitating battle with cancer. Nat’s love of science was a sustaining force throughout that struggle. Nat Sternberg died on September 26, 1995.

Nat was a scientist’s scientist, possessed of extraordinary energy, creativity, wit, and, above all, generosity of spirit. In honor of these qualities and of the person in whom they were combined, former associates of Nat, Lynn Enquist and Thomas Silhavy, conceived of the Nat L. Sternberg Thesis Prize. The annual prize was first offered in 1996.


2022 – The prize was shared between: Katherine Wozniak, University of Michigan; Thesis title: “Structure and Kinase Activity of Bacterial Cell Cycle Regulator CcrZ” and Alam García-Heredia, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Thesis title: “Compartmentalization of Cell Wall Synthesis in Mycobacteria”

2021 – The prize was shared between: Jacob Bobonis, European Molecular Biology Laboratory; Thesis title: “Bacterial Retrons Encode Phage-Sensing Toxin/Antitoxin Systems” and Maryam Khademian, Stanford University; Thesis Title: “Oxidative Stress in Anoxic Habitats”

2020 – The prize was shared between: Justin Silpe, Princeton University; Thesis title: “A Quorum-Sensing Autoinducer that Controls Bacterial Group Behaviors and a Phage Lysis-Lysogeny Decision” and Adair Borges, University of California-San Francisco; Thesis title: “CRISPR vs. Anti-CRISPR: How Bacterial Viruses Fight CRISPR-Cas Immunity” and Elizabeth Mueller, Washington University; Thesis title: “Plasticity Ensures Robust Cell Wall Metabolism in Bacteria”
Honorable Mentions to: Andrés Aranda-Díaz, Stanford University; Thesis title: “Probing Gut Bacterial Physiology and Antibiotic Action in Complex Environments” and Jean-Benoît Lalanne, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.;Thesis title: “Multiscale Dissection of Bacterial Proteome Optimization”

2019 – The prize was shared between: Courtney Ellison, Indiana University; Thesis advisor: Yves Brun; Thesis title: “Function of pili and their activity in diverse bacterial species” and John Pribis, Baylor College of Medicine; Thesis title: “Gamblers: An Antibiotic-Induced Evolvable Cell Subpopulation Differentiated by Reactive-Oxygen-Induced General Stress Response”

2018 – The prize was shared between: Madeline Sherlock, University of Colorado; Thesis advisor: Ronald Breaker; Thesis title: “Riboswitch Regulation of Guanidine Metabolism, Nucleotide Biosynthesis, and ppGpp Signaling” and Fahim Farzadfard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Thesis title: “Single-Nucleotide-Resolution Computing the Memory in Living Cells”

2017 – The prize was shared between: Gregory Goldberg, The Rockefeller University; Thesis advisor: Luciano Marraffini; Thesis title: “Investigating genetic (in)compatibility between temperate phages and CRISPR-Cas systems in Staphylococcus aureus” and April Pawluk, University of Toronto; Thesis advisor: Karen Maxwell and Alan Davidson; Thesis title: “Prevalence, Diversity, Impact, and Applications of CRISPR-Cas Inhibitors”

2016 Jared Winkelman, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Thesis advisor: Richard Gourse; Thesis title: “Mapping the Path of DNA in Transcription Initiation Intermediates”

2015 Joseph Bondy-Denomy, University of Toronto; Thesis advisor: Alan Davidson; Thesis title: “The diverse impact of bacteriophages on the bacterial host”

2014 – The prize was shared between: Thomas Norman, Harvard University; Thesis advisors: Richard Losick and Johan Paulsson; Thesis title: “Memory in a phenotypic switch and noise in gene networks” and Chao Jiang, Indiana University; Thesis advisor: Yves Brun; Thesis title: “Evolution of bacterial morphology and beyond”

2013Jason Peters, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Thesis Advisor, Robert Landick; Thesis Title: “Genome-scale studies of Rho-dependent transcription termination in Escherichia coli”

2012Elie Diner, University of California Santa Barbara; Thesis Advisor, Christopher Hayes; Thesis Title: “Identification of a target cell permissive factor required for contact-dependent growth inhibition (CDI)”

2011Matthijs M. Jore, Wageningen University, The Netherlands; Thesis advisors: John van der Oost and Stan J. Brouns; Thesis Title: “CRISPR-mediated antiviral defense in prokaryotes”

2010Tim R. Blower, University of Cambridge, UK; Thesis advisor: George Salmond; Thesis Title: “Functional and structural studies of the toxIN abortive infection and toxin-antitoxin locus from Erwinia carotovora subspecies atroseptica”

2009 – The prize was shared between Mike Pearce-New York University; Thesis Advisor, Heran Darwin; Thesis Title: “Identification of Substrates of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis Proteasome and Characterization of a Ubiquitin-like Protein that Signals their Degradation” and Julia van Kessel-University of Pittsburgh; Thesis Advisor, Graham Hatfull; Thesis Title: “Recombineering in Mycobacteria using Mycobacteriophage Proteins”

2008  Richard Weart, Ph.D. Washington University; Thesis Advisor, Petra Levin; Thesis title: “Regulation of FtsZ ring assembly and cell division in Bacillus subtilis”

2007 – Wiep K. Smits, University of Groningen, The Netherlands; Thesis advisor, Prof. Dr. O.P. Kuipers; Thesis title: “To be competent or not: an inquiry into the molecular basis of bacterial differentiation”

2006 – Hubert Lam, Ph.D. Yale University; Thesis Advisor, Christine Jacobs-Wagner.;Thesis Title: “Regulation of polarity and cell cycle progression in Caulobacter crescentus”

2005 – Ishita Shaw, Ph.D. University of Maryland Baltimore County; Thesis Advisor, Richard Wolf; Thesis Title: “Characterization of the Escherichia coli transcription activator SoxS: protein-protein interactions with RNA polymerase and regulation of its proteolysis”

2004 – Ali Nahvi, Ph.D., Yale University; Thesis Advisor, Ronald Breaker; Thesis title: “Riboswitch Regulation of Gene Expression in Bacteria”

2003  The prize was shared between Benjamin Alba, Ph.D. University of California at San Francisco; Thesis advisor, Carol Gross; Thesis title: “Control of the Sigma E-dependent extracytoplasmic stress response by regulated proteolysis” and Rut Carballido-Lòpez, Ph.D. University of Oxford; Thesis Advisor, Jeff Errington; Thesis title: “Bacterial cytoskeleton: Cell shape determination in Bacillus subtilis”

2002 – Thomas Bernhardt, Ph.D. Texas A&M University; Thesis advisor, Ryland Young; Thesis title: “Breaking Free: Small Phages Inhibit Murein Synthesis to Lyse Their Host”

2001 – Maria Lara-Tejero, Ph.D. Yale University; Thesis advisor, Jorge Galan; Thesis title: “Molecular and Functional Characterization of the Campylobacter jejuni cytolethal distending toxin”

2000  Deborah M. Anderson, Ph.D. UCLA; Thesis advisor: Olaf Schneewind; Thesis title: “Recognition of type III secretion substrates in Yersinia enterocolitica”

1999 – Jessica M. Jones, Ph.D. Georgetown University; Thesis advisor, Hiroshi Nakai; Thesis title: “Transpososome to replisome: The role of the Escherichia coli PriA protein in bacteriophage mu replication by transposition”

1998 – Robert B. Tracy, Ph.D. University of California, Davis; Thesis advisor, Stephen Kowalczykowski; Thesis title: “Biochemical investigation of the preferential binding and homologous pairing of GT-rich sequences by the Escherichia coli RecA protein and the Saccharomyces cerevisiae Rad51 protein”

1997 – Barbara A. Bensing, Ph.D. University of Minnesota; Thesis advisor, Gary M. Dunny; Thesis title: “Activation of pheromone-inducible plasmid transfer functions in Enterococcus faecalis: Interaction of a regulatory RNA with components of the ribosome”

1996  The prize was shared between Leonard Duncan, Ph.D. Harvard University; Thesis advisor, Richard Losick; Thesis title: “Cell-specific activation of transcription factor sF in sporulating Bacillus subtilis” and Jin-Ying Yang, Ph.D. University of Texas at Austin; Thesis advisor, Rasika M. Harshey; Thesis title: “Active site assembly during Mu transposition”