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Talent Showcase: Tri-State’s Brightest Postdoctoral Scientists of 2019

New breakthroughs in controlling mosquito populations, quantum gravity and reducing chemical byproduct waste are among the cutting edge research being honored by the 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists.

This year the Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists received 137 nominations from 20 academic institutions in the tri-state area. A jury of distinguished senior scientists and engineers from leading academic institutions selected three outstanding scientists as Winners who will each receive a $30,000 unrestricted prize, and six Finalists (two from each category) who each will collect a $10,000 unrestricted prize.

Supporting outstanding scientists from academic research institutions across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut since 2007, the Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists recognize and honor postdoctoral researchers in three scientific disciplinary categories: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry.

The 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Winners are:

Life Sciences: Laura Duvall, PhD, nominated by The Rockefeller University (now at Columbia University). Dr. Duvall’s discovery of two key molecules in mosquitos that inhibit blood-feeding and breeding has worldwide implications for controlling mosquito populations and the spread of diseases such as Dengue and Zika. At the time of nomination, Dr. Duvall was a trainee of the 2007 Blavatnik Regional Awards Faculty Winner, Leslie Vosshall of The Rockefeller University.

Physical Sciences & Engineering: Netta Engelhardt, PhD, nominated by Princeton University (now at Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Dr. Engelhardt’s research at the interface of general relativity and quantum field theory is answering complex questions about the fundamentals of our universe, including the remarkable explanation for the origin of black hole entropy. Her work is integral to the understanding of how the fabric of the universe at large-scale is encoded in quantum gravity.

Chemistry: Juntao Ye, PhD, nominated by Cornell University (now at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China). Improving synthetic efficiency while lowering the cost of synthesis is a primary goal for pharmaceutical industries. Ye invented several new methods that allow for converting readily available chemicals into value-added and pharmaceutically relevant products in a highly efficient and economical manner, while reducing chemical byproduct waste. These methods could accelerate the pace of drug discovery through improving efficiency in synthesizing complex and bioactive compounds.

The cutting-edge discoveries being recognized this year cover an incredibly disparate breadth of work in quantum gravity, drug discovery, control of mosquito populations and underwater photographic imagery. These are the advances that will change our world.

Ellis Rubinstein

2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Finalists

Life Sciences

Carla Nasca, PhD, nominated by The Rockefeller University — recognized for the discovery of acetyl-L-carnitine (LAC) as a novel modulator of brain rewiring and a possible new treatment for depression that acts by turning on and off specific genes related to the neurotransmitter glutamate.

Liling Wan, PhD, nominated by The Rockefeller University (currently transitioning to the University of Pennsylvania) — recognized for identifying a previously unknown function of a protein called ENL, which has the ability to read epigenetic information on our chromosomes and activate genes that perpetuate tumor growth. Elucidating the structure and mechanism of ENL has guided ongoing development of drugs to treat cancers.

Physical Sciences & Engineering

Derya Akkaynak, PhD, nominated by Princeton University — recognized for significant breakthroughs in computer vision and underwater imaging technologies, resolving a fundamental technological problem in the computer vision community — the reconstruction of lost colors and contrast in underwater photographic imagery — which will have real implications for oceanographic research.

Matthew Yankowitz, PhD, nominated by Columbia University (now at the University of Washington) — recognized for groundbreaking experimental work modifying the electronic properties of a new class of two-dimensional materials, known as van der Waal materials. van der Waal materials have generated tremendous interest due to their properties and the promise they show for use in next-generation optoelectronic and electronic devices, future computing, and telecommunications technologies. Dr. Yankowitz’s work led to the discovery that applied pressure can be used to induce superconductive properties in multi-layer graphene, and has significantly advanced a new area of research recently coined “twistronics.”


Yaping Zang, PhD, nominated by Columbia University — recognized for innovatively using electrochemistry and electrical fields in conjunction with scanning tunneling microscopy techniques to drive chemical reactions. This work provides a deeper understanding of the reaction mechanisms and opens new avenues for the use of electricity as a catalyst in chemical reactions.

Igor Dikiy, PhD, nominated by the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY — recognized for completing the first study of G-protein–coupled receptor (GPCR) fast sidechain dynamics using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy to shed light on the molecular mechanisms of cell signaling. GPCRs control a variety of processes in the human body and are targets for over 30% of all FDA-approved drugs. Elucidating the mechanisms of GPCR signaling will enable researchers to design more effective drugs.

Honoring the Blavatnik Regional Award Winners and Finalists

The 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Winners and Finalists will be honored at the New York Academy of Sciences’ Annual Gala at Cipriani 25 Broadway in New York on Monday, November 11, 2019.

To learn more about this year’s Blavatnik Awards honorees, please visit the Blavatnik Awards website and follow us on Facebook and Twitter: @BlavatnikAwards


Academy Communications Department
This article was written by a member of the Academy Communications team.