"It's not that we like flies," Banerjee explains. "We work on fruit flies because the entire genome of the fruit fly has been sequenced. For the last 100 years or so, people have considered fruit flies as one of the premier genetic organisms."
Banerjee's research on signal transduction pathways of fruit flies has uncovered the functions of many oncogenes, which are genes that have the potential to cause a normal cell to become cancerous. Mutations in oncogenes have been linked to cancer in humans.
IIt is this innovative research, along with Banerjee's genuine love for teaching, that won him the 2000 Gold Shield Prize for Faculty Excellence, a $30,000 award given every two years to a UCLA faculty member who has made both important research accomplishments and significant contributions to undergraduate education. The prize was established by Gold Shield Alumnae of UCLA in 1986.
A native of New Delhi, India, Banerjee was always interested in science, even as a child. He received a B.S. in chemistry from St. Stephens College in New Delhi, then earned a master's degree in physical chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology. Banerjee came to the California Institute of Technology to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1984, then did his postdoctoral work in biology, also at Caltech. He joined the UCLA faculty in 1988.
Banerjee, who was promoted directly from assistant professor to full professor in 1994, is thankful for the Gold Shield honor and appreciates the group's interest in teaching as well as research. "The days of science teaching being this kind of boring, dry thing to do - that image is not true anymore," he says. "Science has its own beauty, and if you can bring that beauty out, the kids like it."