Video for 2007 award ceremony
By Adrienne Burke
When the Academy received a generous gift this year from the Blavatnik Charitable Foundation to support an annual award for scientists and engineers, a few stipulations were agreed upon: that the prize celebrate innovative research taking place in the New York metropolitan region, that it support excellence in interdisciplinary research, that use of the prize money be unrestricted, and that the winners be at early stages in their careers.
Scientists commonly make their most significant discoveries as young investigators, but major recognition for that work, such as the Lasker Award or the Nobel Prize, tends to come later in life. The Academy's award will give financial support to scientists at the time they need it most—while they are in the midst of making career-defining discoveries that could open entirely new paths of research.
To qualify, nominees had to have been born on or after January 1, 1965. Their work could be in basic, applied, or translational research, in a broad spectrum of sciences, from chemistry to engineering to mathematics. All nominees came highly recommended by senior scientists and mentors in their fields. More than 250 applications were judged by a panel of more than 40 prominent senior scientists.
Here are profiles of the 5 winners and 9 finalists in the first New York Academy of Sciences Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists competition. Each winner will receive a $25,000 prize, and finalists will each be awarded $5,000. From biosensors to motion capture to cancer cures, this will surely not be the last time you hear about the groundbreaking work of the science superstars in this group.
Age: 42 Provenance: Lozere, France
Position: Distinguished Research Scientist, NEC Labs America, Princeton, NJ
Category: Applied Research
There's a four-in-ten chance that a check you've written has been read by a piece of software that Léon Bottou wrote. While working at AT&T Bell Labs in the late 1990s, Bottou played a major role in the development of an image pattern recognition system that incorporated novel methods to enable simultaneous segmenting and recognition of images of strings of sloppily handwritten characters. Wachovia Bank became a customer.
And it's likely you will benefit from another platform Bottou developed. His DjVu document compression method uses highly efficient algorithms to segment and compress bi-tonal and color images, photos, or text documents into foreground and background components. Freely available online, DjVu is being used by the Million Books Project to build a free online public library. For the past five years, Bottou has been a research scientist in the machine learning group at NEC Labs America. He describes the goal of his work there as simply, "to make computers smart."
Bottou explains the advantage of a machine-learning approach: "In the beginning, people tried to make systems recognize characters based on a priori knowledge. But there was always another kind of [letter] 'A' that didn't fit the model." Instead, he says, an artificial neural network with a lot of parameters can let a computer recognize characters closer to the way a human brain does. "We input millions of little images of characters and output the identity of the character. Then we adjust the parameter programmatically until the thing recognizes them." Following on the success of such programming, Bottou says his career has been to answer questions such as, "What kind of task can you solve that way? How fast can you do it? and, How far can you extend these principles?"
As most of his work to date has been in teaching computers to interpret images, Bottou says his next challenge is to teach them to understand language.
Current Position: Joined Microsoft Corporation as a Partner Scientist in 2010.
If you want to learn more about Léon Bottou's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 38 Provenance: Serres, Greece
Position: Director, Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, and Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Cornell University
Category: Applied Research
He arrived at graduate school with a bachelor's degree in physics from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, but George Malliaras credits his PhD advisor at the University of Groningen with showing him a career path. "Before I met Georges Hadziioannou I didn't even know what polymers were," he says.
Sixteen years later, Malliaras is known worldwide for his work in organic electronics and the development of devices for applications such as flat-panel displays, solid-state lighting, and solar cells.
Among the most promising new research projects under his direction at the Cornell Nanoscale Facility, he says, is the use of conducting polymer transistors as transducers in diagnostic sensors. By integrating transistors with microfluidic channels, he has been able to fine-tune the instruments to get incredible sensitivity and selectivity. His handheld biosensors, which resemble glucose tests available in supermarkets and carry disposable arrays for disease markers, are easy to use and show commercial promise for testing a variety of diseases, he says.
Most people get their cars serviced more frequently than they visit their doctor, Malliaras notes. "Making medical diagnostics more widely available, both in our society and in places where healthcare isn't as developed, would make an impact," he says.
To be sure, uses for the organic electronics that Malliaras develops go beyond human health. With DuPont scientists and fellow Blavatnik Awards finalist Colin Nuckolls at Columbia University, Malliaras is developing electronic tags that could be attached, for instance, to grocery store products and enable E-ZPass-style shopping. In yet another project, he is perfecting inexpensive solar cells for producing energy in isolated places. Such a cell, he says, could provide the energy to run a well pump in a remote African village.
Such practical applications are important to Malliaras. "It's one of the reasons I get up and run into the lab with a big smile in the morning," he says. "Technology should be put toward betterment of society—for making life easier and increasing its quality."
Current Position: Associate Professor in the Department of Material Science and Engineering, Cornell University
Fong H.H., Pozdin V., Amassian A., Malliaras G.G., Smilgies D., He. M., Gasper S., Zhang F., and Sorensen M. Tetrathienoacene copolymers as high mobility, soluble organic semiconductors. Journal of the American Chemistry Society. In Press.
Zakhidov A.A., Lee J.-K., Fong H.H., DeFranco J.A., Chatzichristidi M., Taylor P., Ober C.K., and Malliaras G.G. Hydrofluoroethers as orthogonal solvents for chemical processing of organic electronic materials. Advanced Materials. In Press.
If you want to learn more about George Malliaras' research, visit his lab website.
Age: 41 Provenance: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Position: Professor, Section of Immunobiology, Yale University School of Medicine and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Category: Basic Research
In the midst of the political and economic upheaval surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ruslan Medzhitov knew that to continue his immunology research he needed to leave Moscow. Having read a paper by the famous Yale immunologist Charles Janeway, Medzhitov wrote him a letter. After a few scientific discussions over e-mail, Janeway invited the young biochemist to join his lab as a postdoctoral fellow. "That was 1994, and I've been at Yale ever since," Medzhitov says.
Medzhitov studies how the immune system detects and subsequently becomes activated by infection. "Infectious agents—viruses, bacteria—are enormously heterogeneous. They replicate very fast," he says. "It's always been puzzling how the immune system copes with the immense diversity of the microbial world."
Janeway died in 2003, but others who know Medzhitov's work rave about his contributions to immunology, using adjectives such as mind-boggling, groundbreaking, and fantastic. In a 1997 Nature paper, Medzhitov characterized the first mammalian Toll-like receptors (TLRs)—the key immune system receptors that detect infection—and suggested a fundamental link between innate immune recognition and the activation of the adaptive immune response. The paper is said to have spawned a new field of study, now known as "modern innate immunity."
Ten years later, Medzhitov is still the most significant contributor to the field. He has continued to study the function of TLRs, and he has defined essential elements of their signaling pathway, identified their role in connecting innate immune response to the adaptive responses of B and T cells, explained their role in spontaneous colitis mediated by commensal micro-organisms, and established the nature of Toll-dependent selection of microbial antigens for presentation by dendritic cells.
Living today far from Moscow, in the picturesque coastal community of Branford, Conn., Medzhitov confesses to being as focused on his work as ever, enjoying the seashore "only when others force me to." Echoing the sentiments of several of his peers profiled here, he says, "To me, the biggest pleasure and satisfaction is science."
Current Position: First David W. Wallace Professor in the Department of Immunobiology, Yale University School of Medicine.
Honors: Elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010.
If you want to learn more about Ruslan Medzhitov's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 41 Provenance: Belgrade, Serbia
Position: Assistant Professor of Medical Sciences, Columbia University
Category: Basic Research
As a traditionally trained chemist developing molecular robots and molecular computing applications, Milan Stojanovic is perhaps the epitome of an interdisciplinary scientist.
You might also call him an inter-institutional scientist. As Director of Columbia's NSF-funded Center for Molecular Cybernetics, he collaborates with colleagues from seven other research centers across the U.S. to experimentally demonstrate that molecules can be programmed like robots. One early success was the construction of unbeatable tic-tac-toe-playing molecular automata, which use DNA logic gates instead of electrical circuits.
But Stojanovic, whose faculty post is in medical sciences, stresses the importance of conducting his work in the proximity of physicians. "If I was anywhere but the Department of Medicine, I would probably be drawn even more than I am to exotic and strange things. But talking to my neighbors puts a lot of peer-pressure on me to develop practical applications," he says.
In fact, the feedback of his medical colleagues has inspired Stojanovic to pursue the use of molecular computing for treating leukemia and lymphomas. The approach could offer a more precise treatment than cancer drugs currently available. Many are very useful, but they eliminate healthy lymphocytes too, and thus have side effects, he says.
Stojanovic believes he will eventually program his DNA molecules to target sets of proteins specific to small subpopulations of lymphocytes. "It's conceptually similar to tic-tac-toe, but instead of a human making an input that encodes human game moves, the cell surface would provide the input based on cell surface markers," he says. Specifically, a mixture of molecules would attach to the cell surface, but kill the cell only if certain sets of surface markers were present or absent. "You'd be able to take more than one disease marker into account and narrow down the subpopulation of cells you are treating," he says.
All his research projects are in very early stages, Stojanovic notes. "We believe we are trying to create a new field, and we have to demonstrate more before it becomes widely accepted." When he's feeling optimistic, he says, he predicts he could demonstrate a medical application within 10 years. But for now, the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society, the NSF, and even the traditionally conservative NIH, have enough faith in his vision that they have provided sufficient funding to support his research for several more years.
Current Position: Associate Professor of Medical Sciences & Biomedical Engineering.
If you want to learn more about Milan Stojanovic's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 42 Provenance: Lausanne, Switzerland; Kinnelon, New Jersey
Position: Chemers Family Associate Professor, Head of Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, The Rockefeller University
Category: Basic Research
Two letters in support of Leslie Vosshall's nomination for a Blavatnik Award describe her as "tenacious." As a postdoc, she spent seven years identifying the genes that give insects their sense of smell. She did the work in the Columbia lab of Richard Axel who, she says, "fosters a circus kind of environment—people are doing insane, unlikely things and almost all of them get these things to work. If the idea is worth waiting for, he'll stand by you." She's only half joking when she calls science "a total, dangerous obsession."
The major result of her time in Axel's lab was the first expression map of the olfactory receptor genes in Drosophila. Since becoming head of her own lab at Rockefeller, Vosshall has built on those data to further explain how the brain interprets and responds to odor at the molecular level.
She has also adopted a bit of Axel's circus master style. "Rockefeller is such a supportive environment without any limits. We can attack whatever problem seems interesting as long as we think it's worth doing," she says. "We're trying to understand the relationship between genes and behavior, and we do that in a very far-flung way."
In fact, Vosshall and Axel's labs are engaged in a Gates Foundation-supported collaboration to take chemical approaches to understanding mosquito host-seeking behavior. Through high-throughput screening of thousands of compounds, she says, they hope to develop a safe, effective insect repellant that could protect babies in sub-Saharan Africa from malaria.
Among the other widespread projects ongoing in her lab has been a study to be published this fall that describes genotype-phenotype variations in human odor receptors. The work is based on a study of nearly 400 human subjects who sniffed hundreds of odor vials and responded to questions designed to determine how genetics, culture, gender, age, and body mass index affect a person's response to various scents.
Enormous differences of opinion exist among people and cultures about what smells good and bad, and even the ability to smell certain odors, such as vanilla, runs in families, Vosshall explains. Hinting at one potential medical use for such data, she says her lab discovered that obese subjects generally responded differently to scents. "You might imagine that if food doesn't smell good to you, it might affect your approach to eating," she says.
Current Position: Forbes Lecturer, Marine Biological Laboratory, 2013, Rockefeller University
-Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2008
-Recipient of the Technical Achievement Award, IEEE Computer Society, 2011
Pellegrino M, Steinbach N, Stensmyr MC, Hansson BS, Vosshall LB. A natural polymorphism alters odour and DEET sensitivity in an insect odorant receptor. Nature. 2011; 478: 511-514.
Ditzen M., Pellegrino M., and Vosshall L.B. 2008. Insect oderant receptors are molecular targets of the insect repellant DEET. Science, 319, 1838-1842.
Benton R., Vannice K.S., Gomez-Diaz C., and Vosshall L.B. 2009. Variant Ionotropic Glutamate Receptors as Chemosensory Receptors in Drosophila. Cell, 319, 149-162.
If you want to learn more about Leslie Vosshall's research, visit her lab website.
Age: 38 Provenance: Unna, Germany
Position: Associate Professor of Biological Engineering, Cornell University
Category: Applied Research
As a child, Antje Baeumner dreamed of inventing a machine that could turn dust into gold, nearly prophesying her future as an inventor of state-of-the-art nanobiosensors. Since completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell in 1999, Baeumner has been on faculty there developing sensors for the detection of pathogens in food or water. Now that her 15-member lab is also working on a Gates Foundation initiative to create HIV/AIDS diagnostics that can be used in resource-limited countries, Baeumner says her goal is to make sensors using only low-cost materials and manufacturing methods—plexiglass instead of silicon wafers, imprinting technology instead of lithography. Ideally, she says, sensors will cost $10–$20 to administer and analyze—instead of the $350–$500 required for current models—and will be "as simple as a pregnancy test and as sensitive as a fluorescent microscope."
Baeumner builds her prototypes using a technology similar to polymerase chain reaction called NASBA—an isothermal method that lends itself well to miniaturization and field work because no thermocycler is required. And her sensors target RNA as opposed to DNA or other molecules. "If a pathogenic organism is dead, it can't infect you. Detecting RNA gives the ability to present a positive signal only when there's an infectious organism around," she explains.
This academic year, Baeumner has left behind her lab and teaching load (she was named Teacher of the Year in 2007 by the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society) to travel for a sabbatical with her husband, who is also a Cornell professor and scientist, and their two small children to Dortmund, Germany. There, with a Humboldt Foundation fellowship and a Mercator guest professorship, she will use nanovesicles to image cancer cells in vivo at the Institute of Biological and Chemical Microstructures and the Institute for Analytical Sciences.
Current Position: Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, Cornell University
Honors: 2010 Chair of the Gordon Research Conference of Bioanalytical Sensors. Elected to the Board of Directors of the Society of Electroanalytical Chemistry in 2010.
If you want to learn more about Antje Baeumner's research, visit her lab website.
Age: 40 Provenance: Stuttgart, Germany
Position: Associate Professor of Computer Science, Courant Institute, New York University
Category: Basic Research
With experience at Disney Feature Animation, Lucas Films, and ESC Entertainment ("The Matrix" special effects wizards), and a research partnership with the renowned choreographer and dancer Peggy Hackney, it's clear Chris Bregler is not your typical academic computer scientist. He's even reluctant to call what he does computer science, and notes that he has published in journals of computer vision, biomechanics, and neural information processing systems. "We're just using the computers as tools for this agenda," he says.
The agenda? To make mathematical models that replicate, as well as perceive, human motion. How we move is as yet a computational mystery, Bregler explains: "We have mathematical models of water and fire and air, and we can simulate the weather, but we have no idea how humans move. We don't know what made Charlie Chaplin walk like Charlie Chaplin or how to model a movement disorder such as dystonia."
If anyone can crack the code, it's him. In a letter supporting his nomination for a Blavatnik Award, Bregler's University of California, Berkeley, PhD advisor, Jitendra Malik, calls him "the unquestioned leader in the field of human movement analysis from a computer vision/computer graphics perspective." Bregler is known for having developed at NYU's Courant Institute a set of computational and mathematical subspace techniques that enable the capture of 3D motion with matrix factorization instead of sensors or markers. That means a researcher can study very subtle movement of lips, eyes, or even wild animals, with a high-resolution video camera without attaching sensors to the subject.
He offers an example of how this was useful in what he calls "a crazy six hours in my life" at the Stanford BioX interdisciplinary life sciences research program. While brain surgeons drilled into the head of a fully conscious Parkinson's patient, Bregler stood by wearing headphones. "They told the patient to move his left arm while we listened to signal neurons changing activity and captured the motion with video and marker systems." He hopes eventually to design a computer model for that motor system by correlating the patient's movements with his brain's signals.
This semester, Bregler is back on the West Coast consulting at Lucas Films' special effects unit. With all the potential medical applications of his work, what's he doing in the entertainment industry? "Short term, we need funding, and we need to have fun," he says. "And the techniques used in the gaming and film industries are also useful for medical and psychological experiments."
Current Position: Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science, New York University
Taylor G., Fergus R., Spiro I., Williams G., and Bregler C. 2011. Pose-Sensitive Embedding by Nonlinear NCA Regression. Processions of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems, 23.
If you want to learn more about Christoph Bregler's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 40 Provenance: Evansville, Indiana
Position: Betty R. Miller Professor of Chemistry, Cornell University
Category: Applied Research
His mentor Bob Grubbs, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, praises Geoff Coates for contributions ranging "from the development of catalysts that control polypropylene stereochemistry to the understanding of metathesis catalysis for the modification of polymers." Coates sums up the most publicly accessible feature of his work in a few layman's terms: "I make biodegradable plastics."
"Most people acknowledge that plastics are indispensable," he says, "whether they're airbags, safety glasses, or food containers." But, polymers have a couple of well-known drawbacks: They come from oil, and they're highly energy intensive. "When you make a pound of plastic you make a pound of carbon dioxide, which is widely believed to contribute to global warming," Coates explains.
Three years ago, Coates and a student started a company called Novomer to commercialize some of the materials developed in his lab for use in electronics or disposable packaging. Small business grants have enabled Novomer to grow to 14 employees (Coates is scientific advisor) and to win contract research deals with some large industrial customers.
Meanwhile, back at Cornell, among other projects, Coates is experimenting with a new material called polylactic acid, which is used already in the manufacture of cold beverage cups and Bibb lettuce packaging. He is researching ways to increase the melting point of the plastic to increase its uses. "There are two limitations to the biodegradable plastics that are out there right now," Coates says. "They're very expensive and they have properties that are inferior to normal plastics that we use." His team is trying to make polymers that are as good as and less costly to produce than the non-biodegradable varieties.
Does a man who is making such major contributions to sustainability live the home life of an environmentalist? "We have a compost heap for biodegradables, we recycle all our glass, plastic, and paper, and we heat our home with wood. But I wouldn't say I'm a die-hard."
Current Position: Tisch University Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Cornell University
Clark T.J., Robertston N.J., Kotalik H.A., Lobkovsky E.B., Mutolo P.F., Abruna H.D., and Coates G.W. 2009. A ring-opening metathesis polymerization route to alkaline anion exchange membranes: development of hydroxide-conducting thin films from an ammonium-functionalized monomer. Journal of the American Chemistry Society, 131, 12888-12889.
If you want to learn more about Geoffrey Coates' research, visit his lab website.
Age: 32 Provenance: Jerez, Spain
Position: Assistant Professor of Genetics, Yale University School of Medicine
Category: Basic Research
As a child in Spain, Antonio Giraldez made his own gunpowder, was obsessed with his chemistry set, and attracted the local fire department when one of his experiments set an empty lot on fire. That was before age six, but it wasn't until college that he switched from chemistry to biology.
Now, as a developmental biologist, Giraldez runs a five-person lab and a million-dollar aquarium stocked with 45,000 zebrafish at Yale University. The medical school there recruited him this year based on discoveries about the role of micro-RNAs in vertebrate development that he made while a postdoc at NYU's Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine.
MicroRNAs comprise more than three percent of all vertebrate genes, Giraldez explains. "That's 1,000 genes, with the potential to regulate a quarter of the genes in the genome, whose function we have no clue about," he says. His group, which seeks to know how an embryo grows from single- to multi-celled organism, takes a blunt approach to finding out what microRNAs do: "We eliminate part of the machinery and then ask what happens when it's missing," he says. To do this, Giraldez removes the Dicer enzyme from a maternally contributed temporary set of chromosomal instructions.
In May 2005, he and colleagues published a paper in Science describing how, in general, microRNAs might function. They observed that cells still grow without microRNAs, but the structure of various organs, such as the heart or the brain, is affected. In April 2006, they followed up with another Science paper describing how the microRNA miR-430, which is abundant during early zebrafish development, regulates several hundred target messenger RNA molecules in morphogenesis.
Giraldez's most recent Science paper, published on August 30 this year, describes a unique "target protector" method that prevents a microRNA from regulating a specific gene and enables the study of the physiological function of individual microRNA-targeted pairs. Target protectors also show great promise as therapeutic tools, Giraldez notes, if they can be employed as armor against a microRNA that would otherwise instigate disease by misregulating a gene.
What's next? "We have a very attractive system for eliminating microRNAs, but we've only studied one so far. We'll now begin to systematically look at microRNAs in different organs," he says. And that's where his 45,000 zebrafish will come in.
Current Position: Associate Professor at Yale University
Bazzini AA, Lee MT, Giraldez AJ. Ribosome profiling shows that miR-430 reduces translation before causing mRNA decay in zebrafish. . Science. 2012; 336 (6078): 233-237.
Cifuentes D., Xue H., Taylor D.W., Patnode H., Mishima Y., Cheloufi S., Ma E., Mane S., Hannon G.J., Lawson N.D., Wolfe S.A., and Giraldez A.J. 2010. A novel miRNA processing pathway independent of Dicer requires Argonaute2 catalytic activity. Science, 328, 1694-1698.
If you want to learn more about Antonio Giraldez's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 36 Provenance: Kolkata, India
Position: Associate Professor, Head of Laboratory of Chemistry and Cell Biology, The Rockefeller University
Category: Basic Research
Having had Harvard's Stuart Schreiber, the father of chemical biology, as his PhD advisor, it's no surprise Tarun Kapoor is hailed as an emerging leader in the applications of chemical biology to cell division.
Though his master's and doctoral degrees are in chemistry, Kapoor says he was drawn to biology as a postdoc. "Chemistry has wonderful textbooks we can refer to, but in biology, questions were presented as mysteries rather than answers. That was an extremely exciting area to me," he says. Indeed, Kapoor's mentors praise his "near perfect balance of the application of chemistry to solve the key problems in cell biology."
Kapoor's interdisciplinary work at Rockefeller, where he has headed a lab for six years, has contributed to the understanding of the molecular basis of key steps in mitosis—useful in the search for better cancer therapeutics. He has identified important elements of the force-generating mechanism that promotes chromosome movement, determined the dynamics of motor protein function and microtubule polymerization, and provided insights into the actions of specific kinases within regulatory networks that insure accurate chromosome segregation. Two classes of proteins characterized in his laboratory—the mitotic kinesins and protein kinases—are potential cancer drug targets.
Looking forward to where his lab could be in 10 years, Kapoor says he has two major foci: "We'd like to reconstitute in a test tube as much of the complex aspects of the cell division process as possible. And we're always looking to develop new chemical inhibitors that will interfere with unknown mechanisms of cell division in order to make a leap to new therapeutics to treat human disease."
Current Position: Pels Family Professor in the Laboratory of Chemistry & Cell Biology, The Rockefeller University
Wacker S.A., and Kapoor T.M. 2010. Targeting a kinetochore-associated motor protein to kill cancer cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 5699-5700.
Subramanian R., Wilson-Kubalek E.M., Arthur C.P., Bick M.J., Campbell E.A., Darst S.A., Milligan R.A., and Kapoor T.M. 2010. Insights into antiparallel microtubule crosslinking by PRC1, a conserved nonmotor microtubule binding protein. Cell, 142, 433-443.
If you want to learn more about Tarun Kapoor's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 41 Provenance: Baltimore, Maryland
Position: Member, Molecular Biology Program, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Category: Basic Research
Harvard molecular biology professor Nancy Kleckner calls her former postdoc student Scott Keeney "the single most important scientist in the field of meiotic recombination" and the "intellectual gatekeeper" for that field. The guys in his city softball league just know he works with mouse testes.
Keeney, who has had an independent lab at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for 10 years, studies the very earliest stage of meiosis. Early in homologous recombination, he says, the cell deliberately damages its own DNA in order to start a DNA repair process that ultimately helps chromosome segregation happen.
His claim to fame is the discovery that the Spo11 enzyme makes those double-strand breaks in DNA. And because the enzyme is structurally related to a family of topoisomerases that also break DNA but then repair it, Spo11 is of interest in cancer research. "A lot of clinically important compounds target topoisomerases to make them behave like Spo11—to break but not reseal the DNA," Keeney explains.
"The double-edged-sword nature of anticancer drugs is that they not only cure, but can also cause cancer by creating mutations," he says. "Our studies in meiosis are a platform to better understand how cells repair the damage made by topoisomerases."
Asked what the legacy of his lab might be, Keeney first notes the potential contributions of the scientists who have worked for him. "Any one lab provides only incremental advances, but multiply that by the people who come through here and what they do next."
As for contributions directly from his bench, Keeney says, "I think we're going to have a much better understanding of how cells make sure that meiosis works properly most of the time, and a better understanding of how and why things go wrong. I think we're also going to have a better understanding of how cells cope with the type of damage the topoisomerase makes. And I don't anticipate I'm going to put myself out of a job by figuring out everything."
Current Position: Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Award: Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2008.
Wojtasz L., Daniel K., Roig I., Bolcun-Filas E., Xu H., Boonsanay V., Eckmann C.R., Cooke H.J., Jasin M., Keeney S., McKay M.J., and Toth A. 2009. Mouse HORMAD1 and HORMAD2, two conserved meiotic chromosomal proteins, are depleted from synapsed chromosome axes with the help of TRIP13 AAA-ATPase. PLoS Genetics, 5: e1000702.
Pan J., and Keeney S. 2009. Detection of SPO11-oligonucleotide complexes from mouse testes. Methods in Molecular Biology, 557, 197-207.
If you want to learn more about Scott Keeney's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 40 Provenance: Seoul, South Korea
Position: Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
Category: Basic Research
Philip Kim is interested in what happens when things get small. As a doctoral student at Harvard he fabricated the world's smallest tweezer—a nanotube nanotweezer—for use in nanoscale manipulations. In another experiment, he used scanning thermal microscopy to measure the local heating that occurs when an electrical current flows through a nanotube.
Today, in his lab at Columbia, he is trying to understand how electrons flow into nanoscale materials as small as a few atoms, particularly as related to making small electronic devices. "Often the physics can be quite different when you bring things down to a small scale," Kim says. "The way the charges and energy flow can be substantially different from everyday life because quantum physics plays an important role."
An example of this research, published in a paper in Nature in 2005, has ignited a new area of study in electronics. Kim's group described how they made and measured graphene (a single sheet of atoms derived from graphite), which can be used for the framework of carbon-based electronics. The 2D graphene's novel band structure, analogous to massless Dirac fermions, is fundamentally different from the gapped band structure of traditional 2D semiconductors and can therefore overcome the miniaturization limit of silicon.
Paul McEuen, a world expert on carbon nanotubes and Kim's former postdoc advisor, writes that Kim's group's graphene work is "one of the most important results in condensed matter physics in the last few years." IBM, Intel, and Samsung are among the companies that have expressed interest in it as a replacement for silicon technology.
Current Position: Professor in the Department of Physics, Columbia University
Zuev Y.M., Lee J.S., Galloy C., Park H. and Kim P. 2010. Diameter dependence of the transport properties of antimony telluride nanowires. Nano Letters, 10, 3037-3040.
Berciaud S., Han M.Y., Brus L.E., Kim P., and Heinz T.F. 2010. Electron and optical phonon temperatures in electrically biased graphene. Physics Review Letters, 104, 227401.
If you want to learn more about Philip Kim's research, visit his lab website.
Age: 37 Provenance: Lubbock, Texas
Position: Professor of Organic Chemistry, Columbia University
Category: Basic Research
Colin Nuckolls was so turned off by science in high school that he started college as an English major and then switched to philosophy. But before graduation, he discovered chemistry. That was fortunate for the molecular nanotechnology field, which he is now said to be redefining.
Nuckolls' 30-person lab in the Columbia Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center makes molecular electronic devices by wiring individual molecules into electrical circuits. "One of the ultimate challenges for electronics is to be able to make very small devices," Nuckolls says. "An individual molecule that you can wire up into circuits using chemistry is the limit of that." His devices have some of the highest conductances ever found for a molecular circuit—approaching one-tenth of the fundamental quantum of conductance.
Their uses go far beyond carrying current, he says. For instance, small molecules can be put onto sensors to bind to proteins in order to observe protein–small molecule interactions. Or molecules can be put on sensors that will change their conductance and pH to make single-molecule pH sensors. Small molecules that recognize particular molecules can also be used in explosives-detection devices. Or antibodies, such as cancer cell markers, can be attached to form a diagnostic tool.
Nuckolls explains how such a diagnostic would be assembled: First, grow single-walled carbon nanotubes. These are typically about the width of a molecule. Next, apply electrodes, and then cut the tubes to produce two ends on which chemical reactions can take place. The excised section of the nanotube is about the same size as a molecule. Now, insert a molecule using reaction chemistry and rewire the circuit with the molecule in between. Finally, onto the molecule, put a group that is programmed to react with anything else you want. For example, bind that to an antibody and see whether there is a change in the electrostatic environment.
It's an understatement when Nuckolls says this is a rich area for discovery. But to build a marketable device, he says, "We would need to start a company and overcome a number of engineering hurdles that I don't find particularly fun." He wouldn't be the first to be faced with a choice between the scientific freedom of academia and the potential financial rewards of industry. To decide on a path, he might have to tap his philosophy background.
Current Position: Chairman of the Department of Chemistry, Columbia University
Liu H., He J., Tang J., Liu H., Pang P., Cao D., Krstic P., Joseph S., Lindsay S., and Nuckolls C. 2010. Translocation of single-stranded DNA through single-walled carbon nanotubes. Science, 327, 64-67.
If you want to learn more about Colin Nuckolls' research, visit his lab website.
Age: 42 Provenance: Grand Forks, North Dakota
Position: Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers University
Category: Applied Research
Kathryn Uhrich says it was economics that first ignited her ambition to become a scientist. She held down two jobs to work her way through college and says, "I started out wanting to make sure I had enough money for food, rent, and books." By the time she got a full scholarship to graduate school, she says, "it became less about sustenance and more about having an impact on other people's lives."
As an expert in developing polymers for medical uses, she has managed to achieve both goals. Uhrich is founder of a company called Polymerix that licenses the technology developed in her Rutgers lab. The company's first generation products are based upon PolyAspirin, a plastic that biodegrades into anti-inflammatory drugs. Polymerix has licensing deals with Bioabsorbable Therapeutics for biodegradable coronary stents, with Cappella for degradable polymer coating for metal stents, and with a large personal care company for skin treatments.
Heading the Polymerix scientific advisory board and holding a professorship at Rutgers is another way Uhrich has achieved two goals at once. Upon completing her PhD at Cornell in 1992, she wanted a career in industry, not academics, and joined an AT&T Bell Labs project to make faster computer chips. But she soon realized that she missed teaching, and sought further postdoctoral research training under chemical engineer Robert Langer at MIT. "That's where I entered the world of biomaterials," she says.
Perhaps as important to Uhrich as the life-saving materials she has developed is the impact she has on young scientists who come to work in her lab. In particular, she identifies with the high school students who come from difficult economic backgrounds. "I would hope that others get as enthused and interested in science as I am," she says. "Education is about opportunities for a better life. If you can do well for yourself, you can do well for your family and community and society. Young people who come through my lab in the summer often come to realize that there's something else out there."
Current Position: Turner Alfrey Visiting Professor, Michigan Macromolecular Institute
If you want to learn more about Kathryn Uhrich's research, visit her lab website.
Adrienne Burke is executive editor of Science & the City.
The New York Academy of Sciences Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists have been created to celebrate the excellence of our most noteworthy and innovative scientists from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Thanks to the generosity of Len Blavatnik, Chairman of Access Industries, the prize for each award is $25,000 in unrestricted funds.