Stanford alum wins MacArthur Grant for research in mass spectrometry

Oct. 11, 2018, 12:02 a.m.

Stanford alum Livia Eberlin was one of 25 people who received a $625,000 award from the MacArthur Foundation on Oct. 4 in recognition of her career accomplishments and potential.

Each year, 20 to 30 fellows are selected by the MacArthur Foundation to receive a no-strings-attached grant, also known as the “Genius Grant,” to further support and facilitate creative and innovative work in their respective fields. The grant is a recognition of individual career accomplishment and potential. Past Stanford alums who have won MacArthur fellowships include mathematics professor Emmanuel Candès and bioengineering professor Manu Prakash, among others.

Eberlin, who worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the chemistry department at Stanford from 2012 to 2015, is currently a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the head of the Eberlin Research Group.

Recipients of the fellowship are given free reign to use the grant money.

The MacArthur Fellowship is designed to provide seed money for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors,” the Foundation wrote on their website. “We believe that highly motivated, self-directed and talented people are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.”

One piece of technology Eberlin is working on now is a new device titled the MasSpec Pen which “extracts biomolecules from cancerous and surrounding normal tissues without destroying the living tissue.”

What is revolutionary about Eberlin’s technology, the foundation stated, is that “this platform identifies cancerous tissue with a high degree of sensitivity, specificity, accuracy and speed.”

The idea started with the goal of accessibility. With mass spectrometry methods, Eberlin and her team can measure the molecular composition of samples and image the molecular distribution of tissues. They can then use that information in conjunction with software tools that automatically read the data and give a predictive diagnosis for cancer tissue. This whole process of tissue analysis happens in vivo, meaning no tissue is grafted or removed from the body.

“The idea was, ‘how do we incorporate and modify this really cool MasSpec technology we have in the lab in a way that’s really easy to use so that the everyday clinician could use it?’” she said. “We needed to make it easy to use, handheld and fully-automated.”

Jialing Zhang, a research associate in the Eberlin Research Group, and a visiting PhD student at Stanford University in 2012, recalled the difficulty of starting their work on MasSpec Pen.

“At that time there was no lab,” Zhang said. “We built it from the ground.”

“Being able to take these measurements in the body can be really transformative because … there are many conditions where you want to save normal tissue,” she explained. “So if you don’t have to remove it and know in the patient that the tissue is fine, there is no need to take it out.”

Currently, the MasSpec Pen is going through clinical tests, the first of which was on Sept. 25. Eberlin and her group and looking forward to future clinical trials, followed by the commercialization of the product to be used in operating rooms and hospitals worldwide. 

Eberlin plans to use the grant money to continue her work in mass spectrometry and biomedical research.


This article has been corrected to reflect the correct term for Eberlin’s research. The Daily regrets this error.


Contact Neeharika Bandlapalli at nbandlap ‘at’

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