Five things to know about Conor Walsh: Winner of the 2022 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists for Physical Sciences and Engineering

They are among America’s most promising young scientists and engineers, ushering in the next era of ambitious discoveries.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) recently announced a neurobiologist, a synthetic chemist, and a mechanical engineer as the laureates of the 2022 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. Each was selected by independent juries across life sciences, chemistry, and physical sciences and engineering after a rigorous review process.

Conor Walsh, Ph.D., Harvard University, the physical sciences and engineering laureate, and the other winners were recognized for their significant contribution to science and the promotion of human health through their groundbreaking research.

“It is an honor to recognize these brilliant young scientists as they seek solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges,” said Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, and head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation. “We congratulate them on their accomplishments and look forward to their future discoveries and success.”

Five things to know about Walsh:

  1. The movie “Iron Man” provided the initial inspiration for a focus on robotics that has taken Walsh from Trinity College Dublin to Harvard University. In college, he read an article about exoskeletons, giving him the idea to create a “suit that would give someone superhero strength,” he told the Irish Times. “I was certainly captivated by ‘Iron Man,’ it’s an exciting vision.”
  2. Walsh came to the U.S. from a rural area in the foothills outside Dublin, the grandson of stonecutters on both his parents’ side, to pursue graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Harvard Magazine reported that he first worked at MIT on robotic exoskeletons, essentially a hard, robot-like shell that fits around a user and moves them about.
  3. To conduct his early experiments, Walsh bought sewing machines, recruited apparel designers and began fabricating soft robotic suits. Over time, his team has developed a nylon-and-spandex suit that straps onto a person’s legs to make walking easier. The force comes from a series of cables and pulleys driven by battery-​powered motors worn at the waist, according to Popular Science.
  4. Videos of stroke patients wearing soft exosuits and walking on treadmills reveal a marked improvement in their movement, The Guardian Once fitted with the suits, the users no longer clutch the handrails and their strides become much quicker and more confident. Walsh has also developed a back exosuit, aimed at factory workers performing physically strenuous tasks. The technology can take 40% of the strain off a worker’s back.
  5. The next step for his soft exosuits involves greater personalization. In an interview with NYAS, he said, “I’m not sure if I’m a scientist, an engineer or an innovator, but I am very passionate about developing technologies that have a positive impact on society. … I feel privileged to be able to play a role in envisioning what the future should look like.”

The other 2022 Blavatnik laureates are Elaine Y. Hsaio, Ph.D., the University of California, Los Angeles, and Hosea M. Nelson, Ph.D., California Institute of Technology.

Each Blavatnik laureate receives $250,000, the largest unrestricted scientific award in the U.S. for young, faculty-ranked scientists and engineers.