Announcing the Finalists of the 2020 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists
NEW YORK – June 17, 2020 – Thirty-one of the nation’s rising stars in science were announced today as the 2020 Finalists of the prestigious Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, the world’s largest unrestricted prize for early-career scientists. Chosen from 305 nominations from 161 academic and research centers across 41 US states, these esteemed scientists and engineers will compete to be one of three Blavatnik National Awards Laureates, one in each of the Award categories: Chemistry, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Life Sciences. Each Laureate will win $250,000. The three 2020 Blavatnik National Awards Laureates will be announced on July 22, 2020.
Originally founded by the Blavatnik Family Foundation in 2013 and independently administered by the New York Academy of Sciences to elevate the work and research of early-career scientists, the Awards recognize the past accomplishments and future promise of the most talented faculty-rank scientists and engineers aged 42 years and younger at America’s top academic and research institutions. In an era where most scientific prizes honor lifetime achievement, the Blavatnik National Awards aim to support young scientists at a pivotal career juncture when money and visibility can catapult a scientist’s career, thereby accelerating the pace of scientific innovation and discovery for society at large.
Blavatnik Scholars are driving key advances in science that will transform the world. This year’s Finalists have made cutting-edge discoveries that include “reversing” bacterial evolution to fight antibiotic resistance; creating stretchable biological fibers that can be used in artificial muscles; improving algorithms to analyze visual data; developing new methods to use light to control chemical reactions; designing novel 2D and 3D polymers; and driving radical advances that can impact water purification, renewable energy and building materials, and next generation electronics. Short descriptions of the honorees’ research can be found below.
“The world has never needed scientists more than right now,” said Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation and member of the President’s Council of the New York Academy of Sciences. “In these challenging times, the work of these impressive young scientists offers us hope. Their research will lead to solutions—new inventions, discoveries, and ideas—that will endow society with the tools needed to surmount the difficult challenges our world currently is faced with. We are very proud to honor them.”
Ellis Rubinstein, President Emeritus of the New York Academy of Sciences and chair of the Awards’ Scientific Advisory Council said: “It has been my true honor to partner with visionaries such as Len Blavatnik, who understand that science and technology make this world better. I know that the impact of the Blavatnik Awards—and of these stellar Blavatnik National Awards Finalists—will only increase in the coming years.”
Incoming President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences, Nicholas Dirks, PhD, added: “As I get to know the scientists in the Academy’s network, I’ve discovered that past and present Blavatnik Scholars are some of the top young scientists in the United States. We are excited to induct these 2020 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists into the New York Academy of Sciences and we are proud to celebrate them and their achievements, and to showcase their work to the world.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual Awards ceremony and gala dinner in honor of the 2020 Blavatnik National Awards Laureates and Finalists typically held each year in September will be postponed to 2021. The 2020 Blavatnik National Awards honorees will be celebrated alongside the 2021 Blavatnik National Awards honorees, on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The Blavatnik Family Foundation expressed their gratitude to scientists all over the world for their selfless response to the pandemic. To learn about some of the work Blavatnik Scholars are doing to combat COVID-19, please visit https://www.nyas.org/news-articles/academy-news/rallying-to-the-fight-against-covid-19/.
About the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists
The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, established by the Blavatnik Family Foundation in the United States in 2007 and independently administered by the New York Academy of Sciences, began by identifying outstanding regional scientific talent in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The Blavatnik National Awards were first awarded in 2014 and, in 2017, the Awards were expanded to honor faculty-rank scientists in the United Kingdom and in Israel. By the close of 2020, the Blavatnik Awards will have conferred prizes totaling over $10.2 million to 321 outstanding young scientists and engineers from more than 46 countries, representing 36 scientific and engineering disciplines. For updates about the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, please visit www.blavatnikawards.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@BlavatnikAwards).
About the Blavatnik Family Foundation
The Blavatnik Family Foundation is an active supporter of world-renowned educational, scientific, cultural, and charitable institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Russia and throughout the world. The Foundation is headed by Len Blavatnik, a global industrialist and philanthropist and the Founder and Chairman of Access Industries, a privately-held industrial group based in the US with global strategic interests. Visit: www.accessindustries.com or www.blavatnikfoundation.org.
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The 2020 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists
2020 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Chemistry
Luis Campos, PhD (Columbia University) – To harness the energy of the sun for clean energy technologies, solar cells must be able to efficiently convert solar energy to electricity we can use. Polymer chemist Luis Campos has spearheaded the synthesis and development of new chromophores—unique molecular modules that interact with light—that possess advanced electrical properties. Use of these novel chromophores could significantly increase the conversion efficiency of next-generation solar cells, harnessing more energy from the sun. Beyond solar cells, Campos and his team are revolutionizing a broad spectrum of crucial technologies by focusing on the molecular design of novel functional materials to address important problems in materials chemistry.
William Dichtel, PhD (Northwestern University) – Novel materials based on 2D grids and 3D scaffolds are the province of chemist William Dichtel, whose work crosses the frontiers of organic, polymer, and materials chemistry. Dichtel has pioneered efforts to construct materials that contain tiny pores and possess extremely high surface areas, making them ideal materials for water purification, the detection of explosives, and new energy storage technologies.
Guangbin Dong, PhD (University of Chicago) – Guangbin Dong is a molecular tailor. An undisputed leader in the study of the formation of new chemical bonds to carbon, Dong and his team have developed a novel “cut and sew” approach for forming new bonds. While carbon–carbon (C–C) bonds are typically quite unreactive, Dong has used his method to produce intricate, cyclic, organic molecules in which the C–C bonds are “cut” and new carbon atoms are “stitched” into the voided space. This methodology has greatly simplified the construction of important drug targets and molecules that would have been otherwise difficult to synthesize.
Neil Garg, PhD (University of California, Los Angeles) – Neil Garg is an organic chemist and a world leader in the synthesis of complex molecules. Garg has made significant contributions to the field of catalysis by developing new chemical reactions that allow chemists to break bonds that were once considered unbreakable. Some of his most innovative work includes the development of reactions involving cyclic alkynes—a chemical species traditionally considered too reactive to be useful. Garg’s methods are employed widely in the pharmaceutical industry in the synthesis of new medicines. In addition, Garg is an award-winning chemistry educator excelling in both classroom teaching and the creation of innovative online educational resources that are used all over the world.
Prashant Jain, PhD (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) – Drawing inspiration from photosynthesis, physical chemist Prashant Jain is revolutionizing our ability to control and harvest energy from light. Jain uses metal nanoparticles to trap light in the form of plasmon resonances, which are collective oscillations of electrons in the metal. This confined light can be used to catalyze or drive chemical reactions that are not otherwise possible in the presence of the catalyst alone. As an example, Jain has used light to convert unreactive species like carbon dioxide into valuable chemicals that can be used as fuels or chemical feedstocks. Such light-driven chemical manufacturing may prove to be crucial for developing and scaling-up renewable methods of industrial production.
Wei Min, PhD (Columbia University) – Wei Min has made revolutionary advances in the imaging of chemical bonds. These novel techniques allow scientists to visualize small bio-molecules such as metabolites and pharmaceutical compounds, as well as to simultaneously visualize large numbers of molecules within living tissue. Going beyond conventional fluorescence microscopy, visualizing molecules in this way opens new applications in chemistry and biomedicine and even energy research.
Gary Patti, PhD (Washington University in St. Louis) – All cells perform chemical reactions, and many of these result in the production of small molecules called metabolites. Chemist Gary Patti asks, “what can we learn when we study all of these metabolites together?” Answers to this question constitute a growing field called metabolomics. Patti’s lab has developed novel mass spectrometry techniques that eliminate ~97% of “noise” from extraordinarily large metabolomics datasets, which allow scientists to focus on the most important molecules. Patti’s lab has applied these techniques to shed light on the nutrient requirements and waste products of cancer cells, leading to insights for novel cancer treatments.
Ryan Shenvi, PhD (Scripps Research Institute) – Nature gives us many molecules with medicinal promise or interesting and useful structures—but often not in quantities useful for treatments or scientific study. Enter the field of natural product synthesis. As a leader in this field, Ryan Shenvi is recreating, altering, and improving these challenging molecules by developing new chemical reactions and novel catalysts to drive complex synthesis. His fundamental insights into the relationship between a molecule’s structure and its functional properties has led to new potential therapies for diseases from chronic pain to malaria.
Emily Weiss, PhD (Northwestern University) – How do you use light to produce chemical fuel or to synthesize complex molecules? With a quantum dot, of course! Emily Weiss is a physical chemist doing transformative, cross-disciplinary work using these nanoscale semiconductor particles. Weiss uses quantum dots in myriad ways, including in the study of light-driven chemical reactions, as probes to study biological processes on ultra-fast time-scales, for the analysis of chemical systems that are out of equilibrium, and in the development of new ways to transform insulating materials into conductors.
Joel Yuen-Zhou, PhD (University of California, San Diego) – Joel Yuen-Zhou is one of the preeminent theoreticians in an emerging field called molecular polaritonics—the study of quantum phenomena stemming from strong interactions of molecules with photons. Controlling a chemical reaction such that it produces a desired product is considered the holy grail of synthetic chemistry. However, practical application of Yuen-Zhou’s theoretical work has shown that chemical reactions can be controlled simply by tuning the frequency of light applied to the reaction within a microscopically confined space—a truly remarkable discovery with the potential to revolutionize the field of synthetic chemistry.
2020 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Physical Sciences & Engineering
Aditya Akella, PhD (University of Wisconsin-Madison) – Impressive, modern-day computer technologies—such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce—rely on the capacity of datacenters to process huge amounts of information. Aditya Akella develops technologies that dramatically improve the speed and efficiency of datacenters, while also enhancing the performance and reliability of typically bug-prone datacenter networks. By addressing fundamental challenges in datacenter networks and analytics, Akella’s research will continue to have a deep impact on health care, particle physics, climate modeling, national security, and other fields.
Andrea Alù, PhD (Advanced Sciences Research Center, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York) – Andrea Alù is challenging the limits of materials science, influencing a wide range of engineering applications in electromagnetics, nano-optics, and acoustics. By tailoring the interactions of electromagnetic and acoustic waves with artificial materials, Alù is demonstrating, both theoretically and experimentally, how cleverly-designed nanostructured meta-materials can push the boundaries of physics. His work is leading to new and enhanced materials technologies with potential applications in cellular communications, energy harvesting, radar cloaking, optical computing, nano-optics, and more.
Cory Dean, PhD (Columbia University) – Cory Dean kicked off a revolution in experimental physics. Working with a unique class of two-dimensional materials called van der Waals (vdW) heterostructure materials—very thin materials made of single atomic layers stacked and held together by weak forces—Dean’s breakthrough experimental techniques sparked a completely new field of study known as “twistronics”. His work has enabled the exploration of new areas in quantum physics, including superconductivity, topology, and magnetism.
Kristen Grauman, PhD (University of Texas at Austin) – Today, the capacity of computer technology to obtain and store visual data has outpaced the human capacity to effectively analyze it. Kristen Grauman, a computer scientist working in the area of computer vision, aims to remove this disparity by focusing her research on large-scale visual search and learning technologies. Grauman’s research has made large-scale crowdsourcing an indispensable tool for tasks in visual recognition, improved search times by orders of magnitude when searching millions of images, and pushed the frontiers of knowledge linking modern computer vision with robotics.
Mohammad Hafezi, PhD (University of Maryland, College Park) – Inspired by the concept of topology in mathematics, Mohammad Hafezi is making pioneering contributions in the fields of nanophotonics and quantum optics. His innovative research is tackling a common challenge that has hindered the miniaturization and use of devices that use light-based components for decades: nano-scale fabrication defects that lead to random variations in device performance. Hafezi’s topologically-inspired optical devices have proven to be incredibly robust against nano-scale fabrication defects and, together with his theoretical work, have spurred the entirely new field of “topological photonics.”
Mohammad Hajiaghayi, PhD (University of Maryland, College Park) – What do we actually mean when we say a network—be it the world-wide web, gene regulation, or your brain—is “complex”? Computer scientist Mohommad Hajiaghayi is modeling networks like these with the aim of understanding their complexity. Using this understanding, he is developing efficient algorithms that are useful in smartphone and cloud computing applications. In addition, his broad research portfolio includes algorithmic game theory, where he has solved difficult problems such as computing the optimal solution to the “Blotto game”—a zero-sum game in which two players compete to allocate limited resources, and which has applications in sports, advertising, and politics.
Liangbing Hu, PhD (University of Maryland, College Park) – Liangbing Hu is a self-described “wood nanotechnologist”. His research explores the many potential uses for wood-derived nano-fibers—the most abundant biomaterial on Earth. He has used these nano-fibers to create improved engineered materials, in systems to improve energy efficiency, to desalinate and filter water, and as environmentally-friendly building materials. For example, Hu’s scientific and technological innovations have led to the development of a super-strong wood that is similar to steel in strength but six-times lighter, a transparent wood that could serve as a replacement for glass with five-times better thermal insulation, a wood-based technology that can cool a building’s temperature to almost 10°C without electricity, and a low-cost wood and water battery for large-scale energy storage on the electric grid.
Subhash Khot, PhD (New York University) – Subhash Khot is a theoretical computer scientist working to understand the full power of computation, and its limits. Khot’s research on the “Unique Games Conjecture” addresses deep questions in computer science and bridges the wide gap between development of efficient algorithms and the inherent complexity of computational problems.
Maureen Long, PhD (Yale University) – How do mountains form? What could cause an entire ocean basin to disappear? Maureen Long, a geophysicist, is fundamentally changing our understanding of how processes deep in the Earth’s mantle affect surface manifestations such as the motions of tectonic plates. Long’s interdisciplinary research makes use of seismic wave activity from distant earthquakes to better understand how the Earth’s mantle flows deep beneath the Earth’s surface. As a result of these flows, the mantle influences volcanic activity and impacts continent formation and evolution. Not only does this work give insight into how the Earth has evolved over billions of years, but it illuminates processes that continue to shape human existence today.
Brian Metzger, PhD (Columbia University) – Where does gold come from? Astrophysicist Brian Metzger has found the answer. Metzger’s theoretical predictions correctly mapped the properties of visual flares accompanying binary neutron star mergers that produce gravitational-wave events. In so doing, Metzger made a remarkable scientific discovery: these binary mergers are the Universe’s factories where heavy elements—like gold—are made.
Aydogan Ozcan, PhD (University of California, Los Angeles) – Aydogan Ozcan is democratizing measurement science through his pioneering work in developing low-cost, highly-sensitive imaging and sensing instruments and methods. The new technologies developed in Ozcan’s research lab—like a computational microscope that utilizes advanced image reconstruction techniques and machine learning instead of expensive lenses or lasers—are available for use on smartphones and are bringing much-needed capabilities to resource-poor, remote settings. These technologies are opening the door for various tele-medicine and global health applications, especially in communities where advanced laboratories and infrastructure are not available.
2020 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Life Sciences
Polina Anikeeva, PhD (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – Polina Anikeeva has created paradigm-shifting technologies to mimic the mechanical, chemical, and electrical behaviors of neural tissues. These bioinspired tools allow for remote activation of neurons with magnets, and her creation of synthetic fibers that simultaneously activate and record from spinal cord neurons are paving the way for clinical treatments for paralysis and other disabilities resulting from nerve injuries. Additionally, her creation of stretchable biomimetic fibers has opened the door to fast, light-weight artificial muscles that integrate with the body’s natural nervous system. Together, Anikeeva’s advances in biotechnology stand to reimagine the human-technology interface.
Clifford Brangwynne, PhD (Princeton University) – Cell biology textbooks usually teach us that structures in cells called organelles, which surround certain molecules with a membrane, serve to isolate specific chemical reactions from the rest of the cell. Clifford Brangwynne is challenging this dogma through his discovery of a new state of biological matter in which molecules can coalesce together like liquid droplets, without the need for the segregating membrane of an organelle. Through the development of a suite of breakthrough technologies, Brangwynne can use light to manipulate the location and conglomeration of these droplets, revolutionizing the study of cell biology and our knowledge about how chemical reactions are performed within cells.
Elena Gracheva, PhD (Yale University) – A comprehensive biological understanding of hibernation has remained elusive. By studying animals that naturally hibernate, such as ground squirrels, Elena Gracheva discovered that cells and organs in hibernating animals enter a state of “suspended animation” to withstand months of starvation, water deprivation, and frigid temperatures. A full grasp of hibernation physiology can help scientists determine if and how inducing a hibernation-like state in humans could help improve organ transplantation, promote recovery from brain injury, and even enable long-distance space travel.
Viviana Gradinaru, PhD (California Institute of Technology) – Because the brain is physiologically isolated from the body’s circulatory system, when you swallow a pill, many drugs will not make it to the brain. This means that delivering drugs to the brain often requires invasive surgical techniques. Viviana Gradinaru’s research group is attempting to solve this challenge by inventing an innovative drug delivery technology called CREATE. This system takes advantage of the best properties of a harmless, non-pathogenic virus called an adeno-associated virus (AAV) to deliver genes and molecules into the brain non-invasively. By incorporating another technique Gradinaru developed, whole-body CLARITY, which can make any organ transparent, she can accurately determine that the cargo in that improved AAV was delivered to its intended target. Together, Gradinaru’s CREATE and CLARITY technologies are enabling scientists to develop drugs that can be delivered to the brain, which ultimately may have a tremendous impact on the treatment of neurological diseases.
Sun Hur, PhD (Boston Children’s Hospital) – When an RNA virus enters a body, it inserts RNA into many of the host’s cells. However, cells naturally produce RNA. So, how do the body’s cells distinguish whether a particular strand of RNA belongs to the virus? Sun Hur discovered how cells perform this discriminatory evaluation by focusing on proteins called RIG-I–like receptors. These receptors and their associated proteins form filaments inside of the cell, which then undergo a series of biochemical changes to signal whether the RNA belongs to a virus or to the cell. If it is discovered to be viral RNA, the receptor signals to the cell to alert the immune system of a viral infection. Accurate appraisal of self vs. foreign RNA is a critical task for a healthy cell, since mischaracterization of self RNA as viral RNA can lead to inflammatory disorders.
Cigall Kadoch, PhD (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University) – Many human diseases are caused by changes in the expression of genes inside cells, causing cells to function abnormally. Cigall Kadoch and her team have made extraordinary observations about large, multi-component cellular “machines”, also known as protein complexes, which are critical in regulating DNA accessibility and architecture. Kadoch discovered that mutations in these complexes are found in over 20% of human cancers and several other disorders, such as autism spectrum and neurodevelopmental disorders. Her unprecedented studies have revealed their critical roles in maintaining proper genetic architecture and expression and have provided critical new insights regarding both molecular mechanisms and potential therapeutic strategies in cancer and other diseases.
Julius Lucks, PhD (Northwestern University) – Did you know that the RNA in our cells naturally folds and changes shape? These conformational changes are critical in making proteins and regulating genes—but what if RNA folding can have benefits beyond cellular function? Julius Lucks has created a high-throughput technology called SHAPE-seq to rapidly learn about the principles of RNA folding. With this new understanding, he is making synthetic RNA to use in biological platforms that allow for low-cost, rapid, on-demand testing for chemical water contaminants and pathogens. Given that millions of people around the world continue to drink contaminated water and face threats from pathogen pandemics, these revolutionary testing systems stand to greatly improve the health of humankind.
Houra Merrikh, PhD (Vanderbilt University) – Antimicrobial resistance is a global health crisis. It has become clear that, on its own, searching for new antibiotic drugs is a losing strategy because bacteria will evolve resistance to these new drugs—regardless of their potency or mechanism. Therefore, an entirely new strategy is desperately needed. Houra Merrikh has discovered a transformative solution: prevent certain aspects of bacterial evolution and even reverse existing resistance using a new class of drugs. Merrikh has discovered that bacteria produce proteins that actively promote the evolution of antimicrobial resistance, and she has identified drugs that can inhibit these proteins. By preventing bacteria from evolving and reversing existing resistance, Merrikh’s strategy has the potential to fundamentally resolve the problem of antimicrobial resistance.
Seth Murray, PhD (Texas A&M University) – As the human population continues to boom, the need for sustainable food production will be an ever-increasing challenge. Seth Murray is tackling this crisis. After his surprising discovery that individual genes poorly predict corn yield, he began to evaluate the physical and spectral traits, the “phenome”, of corn instead. Through the innovative use of statistical analysis of images collected from drones, Murray was able to examine the physical traits of maize over time and model traits to predict the highest yielding plants, thereby optimizing breeding and selection. With these innovative breeding strategies, Murray is in the process of creating a perennial varieties of maize that could revolutionize agricultural practices and help feed a growing world.
Nieng Yan, PhD (Princeton University) – The opioid crisis is ravaging the United States, and the medical community has been in search of an alternate family of non-addictive drugs to control pain. Using cryoEM technology to visualize multiple proteins at the near atomic level, Nieng Yan uses different animal toxins and venoms to uncover the structure of sodium-ion channels and calcium-ion channels in the body. This is a critical first step for drug discovery. Each ion channel regulates a different set of physiological functions including muscle contractions, cardiovascular function, as well as pain processing. Understanding the structures of these various ion channels opens up the opportunity for discovering new therapeutics to treat not only pain disorders but also epilepsy and arrhythmias.