He is also the Co-Director, Broad Stem Cell Research and Director, Biomedical Research Minor at UCLA College. He is one among the 20 professors in the US to be awarded a $1 million grant by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to creatively improve undergraduate science teaching. In 2018, IIT Kanpur conferred upon him the prestigious Distinguished Alumnus Award for his academic excellence.
Unlike his father who served as an IAS officer, Prof. Utpal Banerjee was always fascinated with the field of science since his school days. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in science from St. Stephen’s College, he joined IIT Kanpur and completed his master’s in physical chemistry. In 1984, he obtained his PhD in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, USA, and started his postdoctoral training with scientist Seymour Benzer. During his postdoc that lasted till 1988, he worked on the molecular neurogenetics of eye development in fruit fly Drosophila which ignited his interest in the field of microbiology. He then started his academic career as an assistant professor at the Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology at UCLA. At 37, he became a full professor.
Prof. Banerjee’s research primarily focuses on blood stem cell maintenance, multiple stress response system, metabolic control in cancer pathways and metabolic control of mouse development. He uses fruit flies (Drosophila) as a model to understand how signaling between cells controls cell differentiation and to unravel genes behind eye formation and blood cell formation and maintenance. In his laboratory at UCLA, his lab has identified components of signal transduction pathways that participate in oncogenesis. In 2009, he was named the Irving and Jean Stone Chair in Life Sciences and was elected Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science.
When asked, in one of his interviews, what inspired him to take up science, Prof. Banerjee said, “I got inspired to science when I was in high school. I would be waiting for the bus to come and pick us up. There were big window sills next to the chemistry lab. I would sit on those sills and watch kids in the lab adding a drop of colorless liquid to another colorless liquid and it would turn pink. It was magic. I would sit there and keep thinking about it.”
Prof. Banerjee’s seminal work has earned him numerous prestigious recognitions. In 2010, the Genetics Society of America felicitated him with the Elizabeth W. Jones Award for Excellence in Education. He is also a recipient of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors Award (2002, 2006, 2010). In 2000, UCLA named him one of the ‘Best 20 Professors’ of the last century. He is an elected member of both the National Academy of Sciences (2018) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2008). He is also a member of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Brain Research Institute, the Neuroscience Graduate Program.