Blavatnik Family Foundation: Showcasing America’s most promising young scientists and engineers, the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences today named 31 finalists for the world’s largest unrestricted prize honoring early-career scientists and engineers.
Three winners of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists – in life sciences, chemistry, and physical sciences and engineering – will be announced on July 20, each receiving $250,000 as a Blavatnik National Awards Laureate.
The finalists, culled from 298 nominations by 157 United States research institutions across 38 states, have made trailblazing discoveries in wide-ranging fields, from the neuroscience of addiction to the development of gene-editing technologies, from designing next-generation battery storage to understanding the origins of photosynthesis, from making improvements in computer vision to pioneering new frontiers in polymer chemistry. Descriptions of the honorees’ research are listed below.
“Each day, young scientists tirelessly seek solutions to humanity’s greatest challenges,“ said Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, and head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation. “The Blavatnik Awards recognize this scientific brilliance and tenacity as we honor these 31 finalists. We congratulate them on their accomplishments and look forward to their continued, future discoveries and success.”
President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences Nicholas B. Dirks said: “Each year, it is a complete joy to see the very ‘best of the best’ of American science represented by the Blavatnik National Awards Finalists.”
“On behalf of the New York Academy of Sciences, we are extremely proud to administer the Blavatnik National Awards. This prize honors scientists at a pivotal career juncture, where support and recognition can make a huge impact on their career and their potential for future innovations and discoveries,” he said.
Three highly respected independent juries – each representing one of the awards’ categories – will determine the winning Laureates, who must be faculty-level scientific researchers and engineers 42 years of age or younger.
The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists will celebrate the 2021 Blavatnik National Awards honorees in a ceremony on Sept. 28 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The 2021 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists
2021 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Life Sciences
Michael Fischbach, Stanford University
Symbiotic microbes have a remarkable talent for modulating their host’s biology. The bacterial communities in humans, such as those in the gut, are associated with diseases such as Crohn’s and diabetes. Microbiologist, Michael Fischbach, Ph.D., systematically profiles small molecules produced by bacteria that mediate the interactions between the microbiome and its host. His development of novel genetic systems has uncovered genes in a specific bacterial species found on the skin, which produces a molecule with antibiotic properties. Fischbach’s research offers new insights into how the microbiome can impact our immune system at the molecular level.
Viviana Gradinaru, California Institute of Technology
Because most medications cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain, treating certain neurological diseases requires invasive surgery to deliver drugs directly to the brain. Neurotechnologist Viviana Gradinaru, Ph.D., has developed techniques to bypass this barrier by engineering harmless viruses that are administered inside the body intravenously. These systemic viruses cross the blood-brain barrier and deliver cargo such as genes or gene editing tools to treat neurological diseases. Gradinaru has also used her drug delivery system to target problems in the peripheral nervous system and neurons located in the gut that may cause or contribute to Parkinson’s disease. This work strives to discover unexpected sources and noninvasive treatments for multiple neurological diseases.
Kaiyu Guan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Novel sensing and modeling technologies developed by environmental scientist Kaiyu Guan, Ph.D., are revolutionizing how we monitor agricultural productivity and sustainability. Guan’s satellite- and supercomputer-enabled technology measures and predicts photosynthesis, crop water and nitrogen use, and crop yield. His innovations can generate daily “views” of every farm on the planet going back 20 years so that farmers can manage their fields for water and nutrient needs. The technology also allows to accurately monitor environmental footprints and carbon emissions. Guan’s data collection techniques are incredibly economical and scalable. Guan’s technologies enable weather-forecasting-like abilities to predict field-level agroecosystem insights and can promote “precision agriculture” to guide farming practices as farmers encounter and adapt to climate change.
Sun Hur, Boston Children’s Hospital
To trigger an immune response when a virus like COVID-19 enters the body, cells must discriminate between the RNA they naturally produce and the foreign RNA inserted by the virus. Immunologist Sun Hur, Ph.D., discovered how cells perform this discriminatory evaluation using proteins called RIG-I–like receptors. If they determine that the RNA is from a virus, the receptors send a signal to the cell to alert the neighbors and immune system of a viral infection. Sun also found that if this process goes awry, the body can enter a state of constant inflammation, causing inflammatory diseases such as Aicardi-Goutières Syndrome. Her research is providing insight into healthy immune responses as well as ones that go awry.
Houra Merrikh, Vanderbilt University
Antimicrobial resistance is a global health crisis and searching for new antibiotic drugs appears to be a losing strategy. Because bacteria evolve and build resistance to these new drugs, regardless of their potency or mechanism, we desperately require entirely new solutions. Houra Merrikh, Ph.D., has discovered a potentially transformative solution: prevent and even reverse bacterial evolution. Merrikh found that bacteria produce a particular protein that promotes the development of antimicrobial resistance, and she has identified drugs that can prevent this protein from forming. By stopping bacterial evolution, bacteria remain susceptible to antibiotics to which they would have otherwise developed resistance.
Stanley Qi, Stanford University
CRISPR technology has become well known as a technological breakthrough to edit genes. Stanley Qi, Ph.D., is a bioengineer pushing CRISPR technology to new limits beyond editing. Qi helped create a technology called CRISPR interference and CRISPR activation, known as CRISPRi/a. CRISPRi/a interacts with DNA to silence or activate specific genes, without altering the DNA sequence, which creates the ability to change stem cells into therapeutic cells such as neurons. He has modified CRISPR as an imaging tool to capture real-time “movies” of the dynamic process of gene transcription and the movement of chromosomes. Qi’s transformation of traditional CRISPR into an antiviral therapy shows promise to treat COVID-19 and the flu.
Mikhail G. Shapiro, California Institute of Technology
The lack of suitable technologies to noninvasively image and control cellular function inside a living body is a massive limitation for studying, diagnosing, and treating a wide range of diseases. Mikhail G. Shapiro, Ph.D., is a biochemical engineer who has created groundbreaking technologies using sound waves and magnetic fields to visualize and control certain cellular functions, such as gene expression. He has designed cells that can make air-filled structures made of proteins known as gas vesicles. Shapiro can image, track, and control cell functioning inside living animals and patients by manipulating the gas vesicles and other proteins. This innovative combination of ultrasound and biomolecules has the potential to improve imaging technology for diagnosing cancer and even activate neurons noninvasively.
Peter Turnbaugh, University of California, San Francisco
Scientists have made considerable progress toward understanding how diet and genetics drive varying responses to drugs. However, research has ignored how our “second genome”—the trillions of microorganisms that thrive in and on the body—can alter a human’s response to drugs. Peter Turnbaugh, Ph.D., is a microbiologist tackling this complex issue. He examines how specific gut bacterial species can metabolize drugs, potentially reducing the amount of drug available to the body. This process goes both ways. Turnbaugh found that drugs meant to target mammalian cells can have unanticipated effects on the gut microbiome. Understanding the reciprocal activity between gut bacteria and its host will be critical to design effective drugs that have minimal impact on the microbiome.
Kay M. Tye, Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Problems in processing reward, fear, and learning can cause a range of psychiatric disorders. Neuroscientist Kay M. Tye, Ph.D., investigates the neural circuitry that drives these emotions and cognitive abilities to understand addiction and depression. She discovered a neural pathway that underlies an animal’s willingness to engage in compulsive, reward-seeking behaviors despite negative consequences—a pattern observed in binge-eating and alcohol use disorders. This neural circuitry could be a target for therapeutic interventions. Tye’s addiction research identified a collection of neurons that serve as a biomarker that predicts whether an animal will develop compulsive binge-drinking behavior, even before being exposed to alcohol.
Ahmet Yildiz, University of California, Berkeley
Cells rely on molecular motors to transport proteins and other cellular components throughout the cell. These “motors” travel along a collection of molecular roadways known as the cytoskeleton. Defects in molecular motor proteins, like dynein, can cause neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS. Through his ingenious combination of molecular imaging and single-molecule measurements, molecular biologist Ahmet Yildiz, Ph.D., discovered how dynein takes steps on the cytoskeleton and generates forces to carry its cargoes. Using his innovative tools, he revealed how dynein achieves unidirectional movement and uncovered essential molecules that activate and regulate dynein motility in cells. This research provides insight into potential treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.
2021 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Chemistry
Shannon Boettcher, University of Oregon
To make industry and energy production sustainable, scientists must find new ways to convert and store energy and produce basic chemicals from renewable sources. Shannon Boettcher, Ph.D., is a rising leader in the field of electrochemistry. Using electrochemical processes to make our industrial economy greener, he has advanced technology that turns simple mixtures of water and atmospheric gases into hydrogen fuel, plastics, chemicals, and fertilizer. Boettcher has developed new approaches to understand catalysts that split water into clean oxygen and hydrogen fuel and uncovered materials with record performance for the oxygen evolution reaction, research that contributes to a future independent of fossil fuels.
Brandi Cossairt, University of Washington
The nanoscale is an exciting frontier in science. Synthetic chemist Brandi Cossairt, Ph.D., is helping lead the charge to understand how nanomaterials form, grow, and behave. Cossairt has harnessed surface chemistry to functionalize, protect, and enhance nanoparticles, and created a set of predictive principles that could accelerate the development of nanotechnology based on simple and scalable solution-processed materials. The impact of Cossairt’s work can already be seen in toxic elements being removed from television displays and LEDs, and in improved nanoparticle catalysis for the production of fuels and fertilizers. Looking further into the future, Cossairt is designing generalizable methods to create large networks of linked nanoparticles and hybrid nanoparticle materials that could exhibit powerful new functionality.
Paul Dauenhauer, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Chemical engineer Paul Dauenhauer, Ph.D., is pioneering ways to synthesize consumer chemicals from sustainable raw materials. Today, many commonplace materials like cleaning supplies or plastics are made from fossil fuels. Dauenhauer is seeking to replace fossil fuels with glucose, a simple sugar from plants. Through this transformative line of research, Dauenhauer has achieved high-yield production of detergents, plastics, and synthetic rubber from glucose, all performing as well as conventionally sourced products. Beyond his green synthesis methods, Dauenhauer is also forging new paths in energy storage, developing a foundational catalyst theory to store energy in the form of ammonia.
Mircea Dincă, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Most materials that conduct electricity are densely packed metals. Inorganic chemist Mircea Dincă, Ph.D., has proven that certain porous materials—metal-organic frameworks (or MOFs)—can also conduct electricity and be used in fuel cells and supercapacitors, which play critical roles in green technology systems. Taking inspiration from how individual molecules can conduct electricity, Dincă achieved a conducting MOF by weaving a network of conducting molecules into a porous solid. Dincă has operated his MOFs as supercapacitors and can retain performance after repeated use, an essential property for their use in commercial products. Dincă is partnering with Lamborghini to incorporate MOFs for energy storage in future electric supercars.
Danna Freedman, Northwestern University
The second quantum revolution brings the promise of incredibly powerful technological tools, with quantum computers and sensors customized to specific tasks. Inorganic chemist Danna Freedman, Ph.D., studies quantum bits (or qubits, the building blocks of quantum computers) based on specific properties of individual molecules. Molecules are uniquely well-suited for a bespoke quantum system: tuning their atomic composition and structure adjusts their performance. Freedman has elevated molecular qubits to the cutting edge of quantum information science, having achieved record stability and demonstrating optical read-out of a molecular qubit state. Freedman has also pushed new frontiers in material synthesis: she has achieved never-before-seen compounds using extremely high pressures. Freedman is opening up new possibilities to design materials for specific functions by making many more combinations of elements possible.
Prashant K. Jain, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Prashant K. Jain, Ph.D., a physical chemist, is unlocking more potential functions from some of the most common catalysts, such as iron or platinum, by using gold nanoparticles to harvest energy from light. Shining light on gold nanoparticles creates synchronized vibrations of electrons, called plasmons, within the gold. Jain has discovered that these plasmons concentrate light and trigger new chemical reactions that would not otherwise occur using the catalysts alone. Using this phenomenon, he has developed “plasmonic photosynthesis,” wherein carbon dioxide is converted into fuels and valuable molecules like methane or ethylene, providing a potential method to both replace fossil fuels and harvest carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Rebekka Klausen, Johns Hopkins University
Rebekka Klausen, Ph.D., is pushing synthetic polymer chemistry in innovative directions. By applying the principles underlying carbon-based synthesis to other elements in the periodic table, Klausen has achieved unprecedented control over the structure and function of silicon-based molecules and polymers. These concepts may enable tailor-made, ultrasmall silicon chips designed atom-by-atom for specific applications. Klausen is also working to disprove the basic tenet that oil and water cannot mix. Her methods to mix compounds with properties like oil and water probe both fundamental questions, such as the physics underlying the mixing of dissimilar substances, and could ultimately address profound environmental challenges, such as cleaning up oil spills or enabling true mixed-stream plastics recycling.
Wei Min, Columbia University
Physical chemist Wei Min, Ph.D., is a leader in the imaging of molecules in biological settings. Despite extensive efforts, many molecules remain unseen inside cells. Using the methods developed in Min’s laboratory, scientists can observe the complexity of natural systems in real-time with much greater detail than ever before. Min has demonstrated methods to observe individual molecules with chemical information, track the motion of small molecules in biological systems with tremendous accuracy, and detect dozens of different molecules simultaneously. The ability to image cells and tissues with this detail could significantly add to our understanding of the cellular world and the progression of disease, and could improve therapeutic tools and drug delivery methods.
Hosea M. Nelson, University of California, Los Angeles
Hosea M. Nelson, Ph.D., is an organic chemist breaking new ground in synthesizing and characterizing the small organic molecules that serve as precursors to chemicals we use every day, from plastics to medicine. Nelson has contributed to the development of microcrystal electron diffraction (MicroED), a cutting-edge technique that can identify the structure of small molecules faster than ever, which can accelerate the production of new chemicals, like medicine and fuel. He has also discovered new reactions to create beneficial bioactive molecules using more sustainable catalysts, yielding more desired products than conventional catalytic methods. Nelson’s work even applies to medical diagnostics—he is developing next-generation genetic tests for diseases, including COVID-19, that may be faster and less expensive than PCR-based tests.
Sara Skrabalak, Indiana University
Synthesizing materials on the nanoscale is not the only tool scientists have to control a material’s properties. Inorganic and materials chemist Sara Skrabalak, Ph.D., is spearheading new efforts to shape and build the architecture of nanoparticles that can unlock new functionality. Skrabalak‘s methods and techniques can create nanoparticles with beautiful and complex shapes, rivaling even the complexity of snowflakes. She has demonstrated how these new structural features can promote and catalyze reactions, like the splitting of water molecules. Building on her understanding of nanoparticle synthesis, Skrabalak has developed methods for producing nanomaterials at scale and demonstrated the ability to “fingerprint” products using nanoparticles, potentially making counterfeiting more difficult.
Wenjun Zhang, University of California, Berkeley
Chemical engineer Wenjun Zhang, Ph.D., crosses the frontiers of chemical biology and biomolecular engineering in the field of “Natural Products Chemistry”—the study of substances produced by living organisms. Zhang’s research in how natural products behave offers pathways to cure disease and make industry more sustainable. Zhang has discovered novel natural products and tracked their motions in cells, gaining a better understanding of how pathogens behave and how they can be inhibited. Additionally, by studying the biological synthetic reactions of natural products, Zhang has developed a template for synthesizing common chemical precursors from renewable biological sources instead of fossil fuels.
2021 Blavatnik National Awards Finalists in Physical Sciences & Engineering
Aditya Akella, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and e-commerce rely almost entirely on a datacenter’s capacity to process vast amounts of information. Aditya Akella, Ph.D., a computer scientist working on large-scale data networks, 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 profound societal and scientific impact in areas such as health care, particle physics, climate modeling, and national security.
Andrea Alù, Advanced Sciences Research Center, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York
Engineer and physicist Andrea Alù, Ph.D., 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 leads to new and enhanced material technologies with potential applications that include: cellular communications, energy harvesting, radar cloaking, optical computing, and nano-optics.
Kristen Grauman, University of Texas at Austin
Today, the capacity of computer technology to obtain and store images and video has outpaced the human capacity to analyze it effectively. Kristen Grauman, Ph.D., a computer scientist working in computer vision, aims to solve this problem by focusing her research on visual recognition and active perception. 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.
Asegun Henry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The unconventional energy storage technologies developed by mechanical engineer Asegun Henry, Ph.D., leverage the low cost of heat to convert and store electricity. The mechanical systems developed by Henry and his team allow extremely hot molten liquid metals, like tin, to be handled at record-breaking temperatures (> 1400°C). This technological breakthrough has enabled new, low-cost applications in renewable energy and fuel production. One such technology, coined “sun in a box,” converts and stores electricity from green energy technologies, like solar and wind, on-demand. His fundamental contributions to the physics of heat transfer are helping researchers re-imagine energy technologies.
Liangbing Hu, University of Maryland, College Park
Liangbing Hu, Ph.D., is a self-described “wood nanotechnologist”. His research explores the utilization of wood-derived nano-fibers—the most abundant biomaterial on Earth. He has used these nano-fibers to create engineered materials in systems to improve energy efficiency, to desalinate and filter water, and as environmentally-friendly building materials. Hu’s 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 product that can serve as a replacement for glass with five-times better thermal insulation, a wood-based technology that cools a building’s temperature by almost 10°C without electricity, and a low-cost wood and water battery for large-scale energy storage on the electric grid.
Graham Neubig, Carnegie Mellon University
Graham Neubig, Ph.D., is re-shaping our understanding of how computer technologies can be used in applications such as personal assistants, translation apps, and search engines. As a computer scientist studying natural language processing, Neubig has a rich understanding of language and a mastery of the technical methods involved in machine learning. He has made significant contributions to the fundamental science behind applications such as machine translation, speech recognition, and question answering. The open-source software stemming from his research implements techniques used to process words, grammatical structure, and semantics and is widely used by research organizations and tech companies. Neubig’s research may one day make it possible for speakers of 7,000 different languages worldwide to communicate directly with each other, and with computers, in their own words.
Noah Planavsky, Yale University
Earth and planetary scientist Noah Planavsky, Ph.D. is rewriting the history of biological and environmental evolution on our planet. A scholar at the forefront of geochemical research, Planavsky has resolved long-standing geological mysteries regarding Earth’s evolutionary timeline with the help of novel tools that he developed. Using the rock record as a guide, his work has led to a new view of how the composition of Earth’s atmosphere has changed through time. His research provides the first clear evidence that photosynthesis emerged approximately three billion years ago, much earlier than previously thought, and he has helped shape our understanding of why the Earth has been persistently inhabited for billions of years. His research also lays the foundation for new ground and satellite telescope technologies that may be able to detect oxygen levels and identify potential signs of life on exoplanets beyond our solar system.
Kilian Weinberger, Cornell University
Computer scientist Kilian Weinberger, Ph.D., has introduced vastly new concepts in the rapidly evolving fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence. His novel approaches to machine learning represent the most radical departure seen in the past 30 years. New techniques, like “feature hashing” and novel neural network architectures—computer algorithms inspired by the brain’s biological structure and function, known as “DenseNets”—have made machine learning algorithms more efficient and have reduced data bias with real-world implications. Cloud services and self-driving car technologies are already using his techniques. His research could soon lead to vast improvements in medical imaging technologies that may facilitate early disease diagnosis.
Andrea Young, University of California, Santa Barbara
Physicist Andrea Young, Ph.D., is making waves in the burgeoning field of two-dimensional materials. His work on graphene van der Waals heterostructures—ultrathin materials made of single atomic layers stacked and held together by weak van der Waals forces—has enabled radical new approaches to materials design. The work has led to the experimental discovery of novel electronic phases of matter; for instance, magnets based on the spontaneous synchronization of the orbital motion of electron, and fractional Chern insulators, where electrons break apart to localizing a discrete fraction of their charge on the corners of a lattice. Researchers across the field have adopted the techniques and experimental breakthroughs realized in Young’s lab, which may one day play a significant role in quantum and classical electronic.
Guihua Yu, University of Texas at Austin
Guihua Yu, Ph.D., a materials scientist and nanotechnologist, focuses on designing and using sustainable polymer technologies to address vital energy and environmental problems facing society. He has created an exciting new line of polymeric materials, called energy hydrogels. Yu has pioneered an unprecedented level of multi-functionality in these materials, including the transmission of electricity via controlling their electron and ion transport. By simply tuning the way the polymer and water molecules interact, Yu’s hydrogel technologies have achieved record-breaking solar evaporation rates—as solar steam generators—in seawater desalination and water purification, solar-powered water-harvesters for sustainable agriculture, and next-generation energy storage materials for flexible, wearable electronics.