2014 National Laureates

2014 Blavatnik National Awards

NEW YORK, July 28, 2014 - The Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences today announced the three winners of the 2014 Blavatnik National Awards. The Awards honor America’s exceptional young scientists and engineers by celebrating their extraordinary achievements and recognizing outstanding promise.

  • Dr. Rachel Wilson, Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator, is recognized for her groundbreaking research on sensory processing and neural circuitry in the fruit fly.
  • Dr. Marin Soljačić, Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is recognized for his numerous discoveries of novel phenomena related to the interaction of light and matter, and his work on wireless power transfer technology.
  • Dr. Adam Cohen, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics at Harvard University and HHMI Investigator, is recognized for significant breakthroughs in cellular imaging that allow for the observation of neural activity in real-time, at single-cell resolution.

Each winner receives $250,000 – the largest unrestricted cash prize for early career scientists.

The three National Laureates were selected from a pool of nominations submitted by 162 of the nation’s most prominent universities and research institutions representing 42 states.  Each institution was allowed to nominate one life scientist, one chemist, and one physical scientist or engineer. In addition, highly qualified nominees were submitted by members of the Blavatnik Awards’ Scientific Advisory Council.  A jury composed from among the world’s most distinguished scientists and engineers undertook a rigorous review process to select the 27 National Finalists and the three National Laureates from over 300 nominations of highly qualified faculty-rank researchers.

“The National Laureates represent an incredible level of talent.  Their discoveries will change our world in countless positive ways.On behalf of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, I congratulate this year’s winners and finalists and look forward to following their future accomplishments,” says Len Blavatnik, Founder and Chairman of Access Industries, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and an Academy Board Governor.

“The New York Academy of Sciences is proud to recognize this year’s outstanding young scientists who are working at the cutting edge of science and technology. Too often scientists only receive the recognition they deserve late in their careers, the Blavatnik National Award looks to rectify this oversight.  Aside from advancing their respective fields, these Laureates and their fellow Finalists will serve to inspire the next generation of scientific innovators—an essential role," says Dr. Mercedes Gorre, Executive Director of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists.

The three National Laureates and 27 Finalists will be honored at a black-tie ceremony on Monday, September 15th, 2014 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.


Dr. Rachel Wilson
2014 Blavatnik National Laureate in Life Sciences

Decoding the brain


Rachel Wilson says she first got interested in the brain when she was fifteen, through the popular writings of the neurologist Oliver Sacks. She enjoyed reading his books because they opened her eyes to what an amazing and mysterious organ the brain is. Later, in college, she realized that one could study the brain full-time, as a research scientist rather than a neurologist. Her career decision was made.

Through her research, Dr. Wilson seeks to understand how the brain collects information about the world, integrates it with past experiences, and uses this information to make decisions.  The Wilson lab studies a brain that is smaller than a poppy seed—the brain of a fruit fly.  These tiny brains have 100,000 neurons and are still a mystery to scientists.  Dr. Wilson’s work is centered on the theory that if we understand how the brain of a fly works, we can create a better template for how we might approach more complicated brains.

Rachel Wilson is recognized for her groundbreaking work ranging from the genetic to the computational, revealing how the olfactory system decodes and processes information, leading to a deeper understanding of how brain circuits compute sensory information. Her work is a combination of elegance, creativity and sheer technical tour de force, and it is wonderful to follow the evolution of her thoughts and experiments,” says Dr. Carla Shatz, Director of the Bio-X, Sapp Family Provostial Professor of Biology and Neurobiology at Stanford University, and member of the 2014 Blavatnik Awards National Jury.

“When I saw the list of finalists, I realized that I knew a lot of these people and have admired their work. There is amazing biology in the work that each of these people has produced. Maybe the point here is not who won, but the fact that it's creating a platform for young scientists to share what a life in science is really like, and to encourage students and teachers of science to follow their passion,” says Rachel Wilson.

Dr. Marin Soljačić
2014 Blavatnik National Laureate in Physical Sciences & Engineering

Novel electromagnetic phenomena


Marin Soljačić grew up in Zagreb, Croatia, where he lived with his parents, both university Professors at the University of Zagreb, until he graduated from high school and went to do his undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. Soljačić’s research spans a remarkably wide range of fields, from cosmology to condensed matter physics.  Marin Soljačić has made numerous discoveries of novel physical phenomena and applied his discoveries to invent new technologies.  In the early 2000s, Dr. Soljačić's group spearheaded development of a novel kind of wireless power transfer technology that can be applied to a variety of consumer applications, such as wireless mobile phone and laptop chargers.  He co-founded WiTricity to implement this technology.

“Marin Soljačić is a uniquely broad physicist whose research interests range from abstract theory to the most practical applications.  He has explored new interactions between light and matter, pioneered a method to wireless transfer energy by magnetic fields, and is a true visionary of future technology,” says Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and member of the 2014 Blavatnik Awards National Jury.

“For me (and most of my colleagues), being a scientist is the greatest fun around. The Blavatnik Award is a great honor: it confirms that what I do is also very important to society in general. It is an amazing privilege to do something so much fun, yet so useful. The Blavatnik Award is also a recognition that my way of doing things is effective: it will give me further encouragement to work on even bolder ideas in the future,” says Marin Soljačić.

Dr. Adam Cohen
2014 Blavatnik National Laureate in Chemistry

Observing neural activity in real time


Adam Cohen’s interest in science and his early inventions were encouraged by his parents: his father, Dr. Joel E. Cohen, is a renowned mathematical biologist at The Rockefeller University.  Growing up in New York City, Adam Cohen participated in the summer research programs of the New York Academy of Sciences as a Hunter High School student.

Today, applying his diverse expertise in chemistry, physics, and biology, Dr. Cohen uses microscopy and lasers to develop noninvasive methods of visualizing and studying the roles of cellular voltage in the brain.  This new technique will help to answer questions about how electrical signals propagate and could one day lead to the design of individualized treatments for diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), epilepsy, and bipolar disorders.

Modern chemistry often demands scientists achieve technical specialization in a narrow field. In his laboratory at Harvard, Adam Cohen breaks this mold by achieving breakthroughs in cellular imaging of electrical currents, new optical properties of light, manipulation of single molecules and control of chemical reactions with magnetic fields. He is recognized as one of the nations’ most promising young scientists,” says Vern Schramm, Ruth Merns Chair in Biochemistry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and member of the 2014 Blavatnik Awards National Jury.

"I am delighted, honored, and humbled to receive the Blavatnik Award in Chemistry.  This award will give my lab freedom to explore new ideas that might not otherwise attract funding.  In a research lab, as in an orchestra, acclaim belongs more to the musicians than to the conductor.  I am deeply indebted to the many scientific virtuosos who have worked and continue to work in my lab and in my many collaborators' labs," says Adam Cohen.