NEW YORK – May 29, 2019 –The Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences today announced Finalists of the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. Thirty-one of the nation’s rising stars in science will compete for three Blavatnik National Laureate Awards in the categories of Chemistry, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Life Sciences. Each of the three 2019 National Laureates will win $250,000—the world’s largest unrestricted prize for early-career scientists.
Now in its 13th year, the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists recognize the past accomplishments and the future promise of the most-talented faculty-rank scientists and engineers aged 42 years and younger at America’s top academic and research institutions. This year, the Blavatnik National Awards received an unprecedented 343 nominations from 169 academic and research centers across 44 states – a record in all three categories. The three 2019 National Laureates, chosen from the 31 Finalists, will be announced June 26.
Blavatnik Scholars are advancing the human condition through scientific progress. This year’s Finalists have made cutting-edge discoveries that include new findings on the inner-workings of the microbiome, cells, DNA, RNA and viruses; creating new classes of materials through inventions in materials science and nanoscience; identifying predictors for improving crop yields; new chemical imaging and synthesis techniques; novel 2D and 3D polymer design and other radical advances that can impact energy storage, water purification and next generation electronics. A comprehensive description of the honorees’ research and work follows.
“The goal of the Awards is to help solve the world’s greatest scientific and technological challenges by supporting outstanding young scientists and engineers,” 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. “Acknowledging, encouraging and funding stellar scientists early in their careers provides them with the confidence and freedom to channel their energy and creativity into ground-breaking discoveries that benefit society as a whole.”
Ellis Rubinstein, president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences and chair of the Awards’ Scientific Advisory Council, said, “The 2019 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists are part of a growing global community of inventive thinkers and rare problem-solvers that will help define the future. These 31 Finalists are a diverse group of scientists and engineers who are paving the way for new methodologies and ideas that will impact the world on a macro and micro scale. From preserving endangered animal species and reducing our carbon footprint to designing new sustainable materials and therapeutics, their research is forward-thinking and groundbreaking.”
The 2019 Blavatnik National Laureates and Finalists will be honored at the Blavatnik National Awards ceremony on Monday, Sept. 23, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, established by the Blavatnik Family Foundation in the United States in 2007 and 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 launched in 2014 and, in 2017, the Awards were expanded to young scientists in the United Kingdom and Israel. By the close of 2019, the Blavatnik Awards will have conferred prizes totaling over $8.4 million to 285 outstanding young scientists and engineers from more than 44 countries, representing 35 scientific and engineering disciplines.
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, 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 U.S. industrial group with global strategic interests in natural resources and chemicals, media and telecommunications, real estate, and venture capital. See more at www.blavatnikfoundation.org
About The New York Academy of Sciences
The New York Academy of Sciences is an independent, not-for-profit organization that since 1817 has been committed to advancing science, technology, and society worldwide. With more than 20,000 Members in 100 countries around the world, the Academy is creating a global community of science for the benefit of humanity. The Academy's core mission is to advance scientific knowledge, positively impact the major global challenges of society with science-based solutions, and increase the number of scientifically informed individuals in society at large. Please visit us online at www.nyas.org and follow us on Twitter at @NYASciences
Here is a comprehensive list of the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists:
2019 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Chemistry
Emily Balskus (Harvard University) – Dr. Balskus is a chemical biologist leading breakthrough advances at the interface of chemistry, enzymology, and microbiology. Her research is focused on identifying the novel chemistry of the human gut microbiome and deciphering its roles in human health and disease. One signature achievement is elucidating the mechanisms by which cancer-associated gut bacterial toxins called colibactins are biosynthesized and interact with host cells within the gut.
William Dichtel (Northwestern University) – Dr. Dichtel works at the frontiers of organic, polymer, and materials chemistry. He has pioneered efforts to deeply understand a new frontier in polymerization – the formation of 2D grids and 3D scaffolds. These materials, as well as other disordered structures that also contain tiny pores, possess extremely high surface areas and have applications in water purification and energy storage.
Christy Haynes (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) – Analytical chemist Dr. Haynes, is an innovator in the development of novel assays to assess the toxicology of nanoparticles, found in a variety of drugs and consumer products, in physiological and ecological systems. She has shown definitively that nanoparticles can alter cellular function and has been working to redesign nanoparticles so that they have maximal technological impact and minimal unintended consequences.
Ive Hermans (University of Wisconsin-Madison) – Dr. Hermans is a chemist whose transformative work seeks to leverage his fundamental discoveries into large-scale applications that lower our environmental footprint. Among his most significant achievements is the discovery of a more sustainable method for the synthesis of C2-C4 alkenes from natural gas, compared to traditional oil-based technologies. C2-C4 alkenes are some of the most important chemical building blocks and are integral for the synthesis of value-added chemicals and a multitude of plastics that define our standard of living.
Jeremiah Johnson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – Dr. Johnson is a polymer chemist whose research focuses on design and synthesis of new macromolecules for applications at the interface of medicine, biology, and materials science. He has developed methods for quantitatively predicting the mechanical/elastic properties of network polymers and also for controlled insertions of monomers into the strand of polymer networks using light. These methods developed by Dr. Johnson find applications in in vivo drug delivery and imaging, catalysis, additive manufacturing, and sustainable materials.
Wei Min (Columbia University) – Dr. Min is a biophysical chemist who has made revolutionary advances in the imaging of chemical bonds, which find applications in chemistry, biomedicine, and energy research. He developed novel spectroscopy techniques and imaging probes to provide researchers the ability to visualize not only small bio-molecules such as metabolites and drugs but also a large number of molecules simultaneously within living tissue. His method has also been applied to imaging ion transport within an operating lithium battery.
David Nicewicz (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) – Dr. Nicewicz is a synthetic organic chemist who is a world leader in the use of low energy light and organic dyes, in a photosynthesis inspired fashion, to synthesize valuable small molecule building blocks. This method, known as photoredox catalysis, provides alternatives to the use of toxic metal catalysts that may be required in more traditional synthetic strategies and also enables new chemical reactivity that is often not accessible by other means. Photoredox catalysis transformations, developed in the Nicewicz lab, have numerous applications in medicinal chemistry programs at major pharmaceutical companies as well as the agrochemical industry.
Mohammad R. Seyedsayamdost (Princeton University) – Dr. Seyedsayamdost, a chemical biologist, has developed a groundbreaking method for accessing a new, previously hidden, realm of drug-like molecules called secondary metabolites, encoded in bacteria. Bacterial genome sequencing has shown that most biosynthetic genes that produce these metabolites are not expressed under normal laboratory conditions and Dr. Seyedsayamdost’s method, called High Throughput Elicitor Screening (HiTES), unlocks these novel compounds, some of which have shown much better bioactivities than currently used drugs.
Joseph Subotnik (University of Pennsylvania) – Dr. Subotnik is a theoretical chemist that has made significant advances in the area of modeling electronic relaxation: the relaxation of electrons into their least energetic state. The work is significant because it provides one of the few practical and rigorous means of modeling catalytically active and photo-excited materials. Dr. Subotnik’s work has made significant strides towards closing the gap between accurate theoretical chemistry models and experimentally obtained results.
Emily Weiss (Northwestern University) -- Dr. Weiss is a physical chemist doing transformative, cross-disciplinary work in light-driven chemical reactions, high-time resolution biological imaging, chemical systems out of equilibrium, and new mechanisms of charge transport in nominally insulating materials. Much of her lab’s research uses nanoscale semiconductor particles called quantum dots to transduce visible and near-infrared light energy to chemical or electrical energy, and for fundamental studies of processes at interfaces.
2019 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Physical Sciences & Engineering
Andrea Alù (Advanced Science Research Center, City University of New York) – Electrical engineer and physicist, Dr. Alù has made seminal contributions to the conception and engineering of metamaterials, introducing new concepts to create artificial materials that mold electromagnetic waves, light, and sound in unusual ways. He has made revolutionary discoveries in plasmonic cloaking and invisibility, optical nanocircuits and nanoantennas, and in generating nonlinear and nonreciprocal responses in metamaterials.
Chiara Daraio (California Institute of Technology) – As a materials scientist and engineer, Dr. Daraio creates and designs new materials for engineering applications ranging from ultrasonic imaging to vibrations absorption. In her research, Dr. Daraio is most recognized for the discovery of sound bullets – acoustic waves whose energy has been focused and narrowly confined to small regions by specially-designed materials. She has also developed exquisitely sensitive bio-inspired temperature sensors and the equivalent of electronic logic devices, like diodes and switches that utilize purely mechanical vibrations. These devices may have future applications in robotics, medical sensing, and information technology.
Xiangfeng Duan (University of California, Los Angeles) – A materials chemist and nanoscientist, Dr. Duan creates versatile nanostructures that can unlock new physical limits or break the boundaries of traditional technologies. His research could help power future electronics or electrical vehicles. Recent highlights include the first realization of pinning-free metal-semiconductor junctions approaching the ideal Schottky-Mott limit predicted in 1930s, the creation of the fastest transistors from atomically thin semiconductors, the development of vastly improved fuel cell catalysts and the invention of the lightest ceramic aerogels for thermal superinsulation under extreme conditions.
Mohammad Hafezi (University of Maryland, College Park) – Inspired by the concept of topology in mathematics and its prevalence in electronic quantum materials, Dr. Hafezi’s innovative work has addressed a critical problem of inevitable nanofabrication defects. These imperfections have plagued the reliability and performance of optical devices in nanophotonics and quantum optics for years. Through his work, Dr. Hafezi has shown that, like electrons, photons under a given set of conditions can also be made insensitive to both the shape and defects in an optical device. This discovery has garnered immense interest in the optics community and spurred a new field of topological photonics.
Liangbing Hu (University of Maryland, College Park) – Dr. Hu, a materials scientist and self-described wood nanotechnologist, explores the use of wood-derived nanocellulose – the most abundant biomaterial on Earth, as a solution to environmental sustainability challenges in energy and water. Dr. Hu’s work has led to the development of a unique processing procedure that can transform wood into a material that is as strong as steel but six times lighter. He has also developed transparent wood composites as a replacement for glass, photonic paper for future electronics display technologies, and a host of other wood-derived technologies ranging from batteries to water desalination and green building insulations.
Subhash Khot (New York University) – Dr. Khot is a computer scientist whose research addresses deep questions in the theory of computation and bridges the field of computer science with the field of mathematics, in particular combinatorics, analysis, and geometry. His Unique Games Conjecture, has bridged a wide gap between the development of efficient algorithms and the inherent complexity of problems these algorithms aim to solve. More generally, theory of computation is now extending its reach into many fields of natural and social sciences, e.g. physics, biology, economics, and sociology, in addition to areas within computer science and mathematics.
Jure Leskovec (Stanford University) – Dr. Leskovec is a computer scientist who has revolutionized our understanding of not only large social networks and information networks, but increasingly so, biological networks. Using experiments, analysis, and modeling, he was the first to validate the “six degrees of separation” hypothesis and demonstrated how influence and trust propagate through social networks and shape online communities, viral networking, and media bias. In addition, Dr. Leskovec developed machine-learning methods that utilize geometric structure in data to predict either the safety or adverse side effects of drug interactions, helping to address a growing problem in the health and well-being of aging adults who often take multiple prescriptions.
Ying Shirley Meng (University of California San Diego) – Dr. Meng, a materials scientist and engineer, utilizes her pioneering research in creating novel techniques to measure, control and optimize energy storage materials from the atomic scale to the system level. Dr. Meng’s work manipulating the functional interfaces in energy storage devices has led to higher energy, more powerful, safer and longer life batteries. Her work aims to provide solutions to humankind’s grand challenge for abundant, clean and sustainable energy.
Brian Metzger (Columbia University) – As a theoretical astrophysicist, Dr. Metzger works on a broad range of topics related to the “transient” universe. In 2010, he predicted the visual flares — termed “kilonova” — that accompany the coalescence of binary neutron stars. In 2017, the LIGO/Virgo collaboration detected gravitational waves from merging neutron stars for the first time. The fading light seen following this event aligned remarkably well with Dr. Metzger’s predictions and revealed these mergers as factories of the heaviest elements — like gold — in the Universe.
Ana Maria Rey (University of Colorado Boulder) – As a quantum physical theorist, Dr. Rey’s research in atomic and molecular physics is exploring some of the most challenging and fundamental problems in physics. Working with experimentalists, Dr. Rey’s innovative theoretical work led to the development of the world’s most accurate atomic clocks, useful in GPS and telecommunications, but also useful for the discovery of new quantum physics. In addition, Dr. Rey has developed and tested theories on atomic collisions between strontium atoms. The collisions exhibit properties observed in fundamental particles and may potentially enable the construction of a quantum computer.
2019 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Life Sciences
Clifford Brangwynne (Princeton University) – Dr. Brangwynne’s pioneering work focuses on specialized structures within cells called organelles. While many organelles are separated from the rest of the cell by membranes, others have no membranes. Dr. Brangwynne’s seminal discovery revealed that these structures represent condensed liquid states of matter that assemble through phase separation, introducing a major paradigm shift in our understanding of intracellular organization and function. His recent development of breakthrough optogenetic technologies now enable light-activatable control of organelle assembly within living cells.
Viviana Gradinaru (California Institute of Technology) – Dr. Gradinaru is a neurotechnologist who has invented methods to track and modulate intact neural circuitry. Her groundbreaking techniques range from precise neuromodulation by optogenetics, to CLARITY that can make organs, including the brain, transparent for high-resolution visualization, to the CREATE method which enables non-invasive gene delivery to the brain, that previously required invasive surgical techniques. These technologies have enabled research groups worldwide to probe neural circuits and other physiological systems throughout the entire body.
Michael Jewett (Northwestern University) – Dr. Jewett is a synthetic biologist whose work focuses on bio-manufacturing therapeutics, materials, and chemicals. He invented cell-free techniques that harness biological systems without intact cells, creating new routes towards on-demand synthesis of medicines, expanding the chemistry of life, portable molecular diagnostics, and education kits. When combined with advances in engineering ribosomes, Dr. Jewett has created an unprecedented and otherwise unattainable freedom to design and control biological systems.
Heather Lynch (Stony Brook University) – Dr. Lynch is a quantitative ecologist who monitors Antarctic penguin populations using field surveys in concert with satellite imagery that can track the size of penguin colonies on the ground. Using advanced mathematical modeling and data on the spatiotemporal patterns of penguin populations, Dr. Lynch can detect population declines predictive of penguin colony collapse. Her work with Adélie penguins is of particular importance as this species provides key data on the health of the Southern Ocean ecosystem.
Joseph Mougous (University of Washington) – Dr. Mougous studies the survival mechanisms bacteria employ when faced with competition from other microbes. His discovery that bacteria use a specialized secretion system to directly inject toxins into neighboring cells has revolutionized our view of bacterial communities. Discovery of these secretory systems and their associated toxins has led Dr. Mougous to probe how the composition of the human gut microbiome is shaped by antagonistic interactions between bacteria, and the role these interactions play in maintaining a health gut flora
Seth Murray (Texas A&M University) – Dr. Murray’s research focuses on optimizing the productivity, sustainability, and quality of agricultural crops, primarily maize. Upon his surprising discovery that genetic markers poorly predicted complex traits in maize, he shifted focus towards improving phenotyping to inform breeding practices and increase crop value. His creative and highly interdisciplinary use of unmanned aerial systems, (i.e. drones) has allowed novel examination into physical traits of maize plants over time, predicting higher yielding varieties and elucidating new biology.
Nicholas Navin (MD Anderson Cancer Center) – Dr. Navin pioneered the revolutionary method of single cell genome sequencing. He uses this technique to study the genomics of many single cancer cells, which has paved the way for new discoveries of how cancer cells evolve. Dr. Navin uses this paradigm-shifting data to explain certain phenomena such as how premalignant breast cancer develops into invasive tumor masses, or why certain cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy while others do not.
Benjamin tenOever (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)– Dr. tenOever focuses on the evolution of cellular defense mechanisms against viruses, with a particular emphasis on RNA. Dr. tenOever has utilized the various types and functions of RNA to develop inactive viruses, engineer RNA-based genetic editors, and characterize the antiviral response of individual cells. By unlocking the mechanisms of virus-host interactions, Dr. tenOever has the ability to develop new biological technologies and therapeutics.
Benjamin Tu (UT Southwestern Medical Center) – Dr. Tu is a biologist who studies cellular metabolism—the series of biochemical reactions that occur in cells - and their effects on life processes. Dr. Tu’s research elucidated the unique and underappreciated roles that small molecule metabolites play in regulating a cell’s different metabolic states. These metabolites can interact with DNA, RNA, and proteins to subsequently impact cellular decisions required for growth and survival.
Nieng Yan (Princeton University) – Dr. Yan is a structural biologist who revealed the near-atomic structures of the voltage-gated sodium and calcium channels responsible for electrical signaling in neurons and muscles. Using animal toxins, Dr. Yan elucidated different working states of voltage-gated sodium channels, providing new information for developing drugs to treat diseases, such as epilepsy and pain. Her additional discovery of the structural changes of voltage-gated calcium channels has paved the way for elucidating the mechanisms of muscle contractions—one of the most fundamental physiological processes.
Gene Yeo (University of California San Diego) – Dr. Yeo has created novel techniques that have increased our understanding of RNA processing by focusing on RNA-binding proteins and revolutionizing the use of CRISPR, which is usually used to alter DNA, as well as track and alter RNA. With this novel method, Dr. Yeo has invented techniques to destroy toxic RNA found in patients with neuromuscular diseases and has identified therapeutic strategies to eliminate aggregation due to mutations in RNA-binding proteins that cause neurodegenerative diseases. These discoveries hint at the enormous possibilities of tapping the therapeutic potential of RNA manipulation to treat human disease.