America’s Top Young Researchers Named Finalists for 2017 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists

Competing for quarter of a million dollar prizes, thirty Life Scientists, Chemists and Physicists/Engineers are tackling the world’s most important challenges

Article ID: 675562

Released: 31-May-2017 9:00 AM EDT

Source Newsroom: Blavatnik Family Foundation/New York Academy of Sciences

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Newswise — The Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences today announced the Finalists for the 2017 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. From a pool of 308 nominees – the most promising scientific researchers aged 42 years and younger at America’s top academic and research institutions – the 30 Finalists will now compete for the largest unrestricted awards of their kind for early career scientists and engineers. Ultimately, three winners will be selected based on their extraordinary accomplishments and their promise for the future.

The full list of 2017 National Finalists and brief summaries of their work can be found below and on the Blavatnik Awards website.

“Since the Blavatnik Awards were established, so many of our Laureates and Finalists have continued to make groundbreaking discoveries and become leaders in their respective fields,” said Len Blavatnik, Founder and Chairman of Access Industries, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and an Academy Board Governor. Indeed, in the last year alone, four former Blavatnik awardees were named members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Previous honorees have gone on to drive on-the-ground efforts against infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola, discover new exoplanets and observe gravitational waves, and be recognized with other high honors including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the Breakthrough Prize.

“Just imagine how hard it would be for America’s leading universities and national laboratories to choose the single most promising young researcher in each of these fields,” said Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO of the Academy and Chair of the Science Advisory Council. “So identifying the 30 Finalists – not to mention the eventual winners – is, for our renowned judges, as challenging as naming Nobel Prize winners.”

Said Blavatnik: “We look forward to learning of the directions that the pioneering work of the 2017 National Finalists will take in the coming years. I want to especially thank our advisors and judges, who themselves include 8 Nobel Laureates, 17 National Medal of Science recipients, and 36 National Academy of Sciences members, for their devotion and judgment.”

The annual Blavatnik Awards, established in 2007 by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and administered by the New York Academy of Sciences, recognize exceptional young researchers who will drive the next generation of innovation by answering today’s most complex and intriguing scientific questions. The Awards program has expanded significantly since it launched 10 years ago with prizes for young scientists in the greater New York region.   With this year’s addition of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the United Kingdom and in Israel, there are now regional, national and international Blavatnik young scientist honors. The international awards were launched in the same year that the Academy celebrates its 200th anniversary.

2017: A Year of Diverse Research Directions

The development of extraordinary new technologies for genome editing, optogenetics (the use of light to control living cells) and the rapid creation of peptides (small chains of amino acids) for therapeutic compounds are just a few examples of the cutting edge research being conducted by the 2017 National Finalists in Life Sciences. They are also working on energy conversion in bacterial nanowires (tendrils extending from bacteria that conduct electricity) and the biomechanics of tissue morphogenesis (a biological process that shapes organs); uncovering fundamental mechanisms governing gene expression and regulation; and combining unique computational approaches to study the evolution of infectious disease transmission, cancer dynamics, and genomes.

 

The 2017 National Finalists in Chemistry are performing revolutionary research including the development of a novel methodology to create biodegradable materials that have been integral to developing new limb-sparing surgical techniques; synthesis and application of functional nanomaterials; RNA-based drug discovery; creating novel imaging techniques by repurposing the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing system; developing assays to probe the toxicity of nanoparticles in physiological and ecological systems; synthesis and application of macromolecules (molecules composed of hundreds of thousands of atoms) in regenerative medicine; and elucidating the molecular mechanisms by which microbiota (an ecological community of various microorganisms found in all multicellular organisms) can influence their host.

Uncovering the origins of the Earth and growth of planets and solving the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter are just two of the fascinating areas of focus for the 2017 National Finalists in Physical Sciences & Engineering. The Finalists are also creating technologies that revolutionize electronics and energy storage; developing the science of social and information networks; exploring novel methods to grow, analyze and manipulate nanomaterials; and engineering metamaterials (materials that have properties not found in nature) that interact with electromagnetic and sound waves in unusual ways.

The National Laureates and Finalists will be honored at an annual awards ceremony on September 25, 2017, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

On July 17 and 18, 2017, the Academy and the Blavatnik Family Foundation will host the fourth annual Blavatnik Science Symposium featuring research of the 2017 National Finalists and Blavatnik Awards honorees from previous years. The event will also include members of the Blavatnik Awards National Jury and Scientific Advisory Council, as well as other scientific luminaries.

About the 2017 Blavatnik Awards National Finalists

2017 Life Sciences Finalists

  • Mohamed El-Naggar (University of Southern California) – The work of molecular and cellular biologist Dr. El-Naggar has potential applications for renewable energy and environmental cleanup. He is a pioneer in studies of biological electron transfer and energy conversion, using environmental microbes as a model system. Dr. El-Naggar has increased our understanding of electron transfer focusing on bacterial nanowires, and is working to develop new nanomaterials and tools for energy conversion.
  • Antonio Giraldez (Yale University) – A developmental biologist, Dr. Giraldez works on deciphering the regulatory code that shapes embryogenesis, the earliest events that occur after fertilization. He has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of vertebrate developmental biology and microRNA-based gene regulation using the model organism zebrafish. He was first recognized by the Blavatnik Awards as a Blavatnik Regional Faculty Award Finalist (2007).
  • Stavros Lomvardas (nominated while at Columbia University; currently at the University of California, San Francisco) – Neuroscientist Dr. Lomvardas’ research may provide clues to human neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s. His work focuses on the olfactory sensory system, addressing the difficult but fascinating question of how each individual neuron only expresses one of a thousand odorant receptor genes. His fundamental work has provided novel insights into the mechanisms of epigenetic gene regulation.
  • Franziska Michor (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) – Research done at the computational biology and bioinformatics laboratory of Michor has led to the first clinical trials based on the evolutionary mathematical modeling of cancer. Dr. Michor investigates the evolutionary dynamics of cancer using mathematical modeling methodologies and a unique combination of approaches. She studies the process of cancer initiation and progression along with cancer stem cells, the evolution of drug resistance and the dynamics of metastasis formation focusing on lung, brain, breast and pancreatic cancers.
  • Celeste Nelson (Princeton University) – Nelson’s biomedical engineering and biotechnology research focuses on how complex organs are formed during morphogenesis in branching tissues such as the lung, kidney and mammary gland. She is a pioneer in tissue engineering/ microfabrication and smooth muscle development and seeks to understand the biomechanical and dynamic molecular mechanisms that influence tissue remodeling during development, wound repair and abnormal cell growth.
  • Bradley Pentelute (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – Also working in biomedical engineering and biotechnology, Pentelute synthesizes new biomolecules for therapeutic compounds, focusing on peptides and proteins. He developed fast-flow peptide synthesis (FFPS), a new technology that assembles polypeptides at unprecedented speed. Dr. Pentelute’s group can form links between amino acids, the building blocks of proteins in less than a minute and generate complete peptide molecules containing up to 60 amino acids in less than an hour.
  • Antonis Rokas (Vanderbilt University) – Evolutionary biologist Dr. Rokas’ research combines computational and experimental approaches to examine phylogenomics, the intersection of the fields of evolution and genomics. He studies the evolution of genomes and was the first to show a surprising amount of horizontal gene transfer (transmission of DNA between different genomes) in fungi, challenging our notion of how complex traits evolve within species.
  • Pardis Sabeti (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard) – Systems biologist Dr. Sabeti is a physician scientist studying infectious disease evolution and the transmission of Ebola virus, Lassa fever, and other neglected, but deadly, tropical diseases. She helped train the scientists who were the first to diagnose Ebola in Sierra Leone and Nigeria during the epidemic in West Africa. Dr. Sabeti is also the lead singer and song-writer in the rock band, Thousand Days.
  • Benjamin Tu (UT Southwestern Medical Center) – Molecular and cellular biologist Dr. Tu studies metabolism and gene expression in yeast and mammalian cells. He has uncovered novel molecular mechanisms that govern cell growth and proliferation in response to oxidative and nutritional stress. Dr. Tu’s research focuses on the metabolic state of cells and responses to conditions that induce or halt cell division to promote survival and homeostasis.
  • Feng Zhang (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard) – Working in biomedical engineering & biotechnology, Dr. Zhang has revolutionized the field of life sciences by developing a series of disruptive technologies including optogenetics and genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9. His group was the first to demonstrate that CRISPR-Cas9 could be harnessed for mammalian genome editing and has gone on to successfully develop CRISPR-Cpf1 (for potentially simpler and more precise genome editing) and CRISPR-C2c2 (a novel RNA-targeting system).

2017 Chemistry Finalists

  • Matthew Becker (University of Akron) Becker works in polymer chemistry to synthesize novel polymeric materials that have important applications in regenerative medicine. He synthesized a biodegradable polymer that has been integral in developing novel surgical procedures for saving the limbs and lives of victims of catastrophic trauma that would normally result in amputations or even death.
  • William Dichtel (Northwestern University) A polymer chemist, Dr. Dichtel is a 2015 recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant.” He has pioneered the development of porous polymers that can be assembled into ordered 2D-grids or 3D scaffolds. These materials have extremely high surface areas and have applications in water purification and energy storage.
  • Matthew Disney (Scripps Florida) Chemical biologist Dr. Disney focuses his research on RNA-based drug discovery. His work centers on developing general, rational approaches to design precision medicines from genome sequences by targeting the RNA product of genes. He developed a method called 2D-Combinatorial Screening, in which a library of thousands of RNA motifs can be probed for binding interactions with small molecules – enabling the rapid screening of potential drug candidates.
  • Michael Fischbach (University of California, San Francisco) A chemical biologist, Fischbach’s research is on the human microbiome (all of our microbes’ genes), focusing on the molecular mechanisms by which the microbiota influence the host organism. He has developed an algorithm that identifies the biosynthetic genes in bacterial genomes and has applied this algorithm to the human microbiome.
  • Nathan Gianneschi (University of California, San Diego) A polymer chemist, Dr. Gianneschi’s research focuses on the development of novel nanoparticle and polymer-based systems for the delivery of drugs and MRI-contrast agents into cells. He has pioneered a new approach to tissue targeting that has shown high efficacy in in-vivo mouse models of human cancer and heart disease and holds significant promise for translation to human clinical studies.
  • Christy Haynes (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) – Analytical chemist Dr. Haynes is a pioneer in the development of novel assays to assess the toxicology of nanoparticles in physiological and ecological systems. She has shown definitively that nanoparticles can alter cellular function and has also shown that this cytotoxicity is more closely related to the surface chemistry of these nano-particulates, than it is to their size.
  • Bo Huang (University of California, San Francisco) – Dr. Huang, a chemical biologist, has successfully repurposed CRISPR-Cas9 (a cutting edge gene-editing tool) as a tool for visualizing the chromosomes in living cells. In addition, he developed and applied super-resolution microscopy to the study of various biological systems.
  • Melanie Sanford (University of Michigan) – Organic chemist Dr. Sanford was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 and was also a recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2011. She is widely considered to be at the forefront of the transition metal catalyst design field and her work has led to paradigm shifts in mechanistic organometallic chemistry.
  • Michael Strano (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) – A chemical engineer, Dr. Strano was elected to the National Academy of Engineering earlier this year and is widely thought to be the foremost expert on single walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT). He consistently develops novel and far-reaching applications for carbon nanotubes across several disciplines. Dr. Strano was the 19th most cited chemist worldwide between 2000 and 2010, and he boasts more than 15,000 citations from his approximately 250 peer-reviewed publications. Among his accomplishments is the creation of “thermopower waves,” which have been applied to the development of a new type of fuel cell.
  • Dmitri Talapin (University of Chicago) – Working as a chemical engineer, Talapin has made transformative contributions to the development of novel functional materials for sustainable technologies. His research has significantly advanced our understanding of how the collective interactions in nanocrystal super lattices affect their electronic, optical, magnetic and thermoelectric properties. The impact of his work can also be demonstrated by more than 20,000 citations of his approximately 200 publications.

2017 Physical Sciences & Engineering Finalists

  • Andrea Alù (The University of Texas at Austin) – Electrical engineer Alù has made seminal contributions to the theory and engineering of metamaterials and introduced new concepts to create metamaterials that mold electromagnetic waves, light and sound in unusual ways. He has made pioneering discoveries in plasmonic cloaking (caused by the interaction of light and metal nanostructures) and invisibility, optical nanocircuits and nanoantennas, non-reciprocal devices, and giant nonlinear response in optical metamaterials.
  • Yi Cui (Stanford University) – A researcher in materials science and nanotechnology Dr. Cui is a leader in the field of materials design for energy applications. He has pioneered the use of nanomaterials in energy storage devices and has created numerous breakthrough materials-based solutions that dramatically improve battery capacity and cycle life, including nanostructured silicon anodes, sulfur cathodes, and stable lithium metal anodes.
  • Nicolas Dauphas (The University of Chicago) – D Dauphas is a cosmochemist and geochemist who studies the origins of planets, our galaxy and life itself. Using innovative isotopic analysis techniques and mathematical modeling, he has shown that Mars is a planetary embryo, found isotopic similarities between the Moon, Earth and meteorites, and proposed a new narrative for the origin of Earth’s unique iron composition.
  • Julia Greer (California Institute of Technology) – Working in materials science and nanotechnology, Greer has engineered the world’s lightest solid materials, untearable paper, mechanically tunable photonic crystals, and a lightest-yet silicon lithium ion battery, opening new perspectives in materials design. She has transformed the field of metamaterials by designing new methods to engineer three-dimensional hierarchical nanolattices with remarkable mechanical, thermal and optical properties.
  • Mark Hersam (Northwestern University) – A materials scientist and a 2014 recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant,” Hersam develops methods to grow, analyze and manipulate nanoscale materials. He has pioneered the use of density gradient ultracentrifugation (DGU) to purify carbon nanotubes by diameter, electronic type and chirality (degree of twist). He has extended DGU to a wide range of nanomaterials and used these purified materials to create novel electronic, plasmonic and energy storage devices.
  • Sergei Kalinin (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) – Materials and nanoscientist Dr. Kalinin creates novel technologies to study and control the functionality of nanomaterials by combining imaging, big data and materials theory. Dr. Kalinin and his collaborators recently proposed and implemented the atomic forge – a new paradigm based on the scanning electron transmission electron microscope – to control and direct matter on the atomic scale.
  • Jure Leskovec (Stanford University) – Leskovec is a computer scientist who has revolutionized our understanding of large social and information networks. Using experiments, analysis and modeling, he was first to validate the “six degrees of separation” hypothesis and demonstrate how influence and trust propagate through social networks and shape online communities, viral networking and media bias.
  • Tommaso Treu (University of California, Los Angeles) – Treu is an observational astrophysicist studying extragalactic astrophysics and cosmology. Using gravitational lensing as a cosmological probe, he described the distributions of normal and dark matter within galaxies, groups and clusters. He has developed a new method to measure black hole mass and made the first ever prediction of a supernova appearance.
  • Anastasia Volovich (Brown University) – Volovich is a theoretical physicist working in quantum field theory, general relativity and string theory. She has developed extremely efficient methods to evaluate scattering amplitudes, the key quantities that describe scattering of elementary particles, and discovered a remarkable connection between cluster algebras and scattering amplitudes, sparking an intense new interaction between physics and mathematics.
  • Gleb Yushin (Georgia Institute of Technology) – A materials and nanoscientist, Yushin has made transformative contributions to the synthesis of nanostructured materials for batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells. Combining innovative nanoscale electrochemistry approaches with advanced analytical techniques, he develops nanoporous materials, nanostructured carbons and nanocomposites. He has recently developed a fundamentally new synthesis mechanism to fabricate oxide nanowires from low-cost powders.

To follow the progress of the Blavatnik Awards, please visit the Awards website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@BlavatnikAwards). For media requests, please contact Dennis Tartaglia (dtartaglia@tartagliacommunications.com; 732-545-1848).

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About the Blavatnik Family Foundation

The Blavatnik Family Foundation is an active supporter of leading educational, scientific, cultural, and charitable institutions in the United States, Europe, and throughout the world. The Foundation is headed by Len Blavatnik, an American industrialist and philanthropist. Mr. Blavatnik is the founder and Chairman of Access Industries, a privately-held U.S. industrial group with global interests in natural resources and chemicals, media and telecommunications, real estate, technology, and e-commerce. For more detailed information, please visit: www.accessindustries.com.

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 driving innovative solutions to society’s challenges by advancing scientific research, education, and policy. With more than 20,000 Members in 100 countries, the Academy is creating a global community of science for the benefit of humanity. Please visit us online at www.nyas.org and follow us on Twitter at @NYASciences.


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