New York Academy of Sciences Talent Showcase
Meet the rising scientific stars taking center stage at the 2018 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in Israel and in the United Kingdom
2018 Blavatnik Award Laureates, Israel
Life Sciences Laureate
Oded Rechavi, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Department of Neurobiology, Tel Aviv University
Dr. Rechavi’s research upends the traditional laws of inheritance. The notion that traits acquired over the course of a lifetime could influence heredity was heresy until recently, when Dr. Rechavi showed how environmental conditions can imprint “molecular memories” that govern the passage of acquired traits to future generations. Rechavi’s work in C. elegans, a species of small worms, illustrates how various stressors can induce heritable changes mediated not by DNA, but by small RNAs. By transferring small RNAs from the regular cells of the body that are impacted by the stressor, to the “germline” cells (eggs and sperm) that pass on traits to the next generation, the experiences of one generation can produce long-lasting impacts on gene regulation in multiple subsequent generations. Rechavi’s lab published the first proofs of this effect, showing that exposing the parent worms to a virus confers immunity on the offspring through the transfer of small RNAs. He later showed that a similar mechanism allows the offspring of starved worms to live longer and to better survive periods of starvation. His group has identified the genes and determined the rules that govern which changes are heritable, as well as the potential duration of that inheritance. Rechavi has hypothesized that similar mechanisms of small-RNA-based inheritance exist in mammals, including humans. Encompassing genetics, evolutionary biology and developmental biology, Rechavi’s research is fundamental to advancing understanding of the heritability of complex traits and diseases.
Charles Diesendruck, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Technion — Israel Institute of Technology
Dr. Diesendruck works at the intersection of chemistry, physics and materials science, in the recently resurgent field of mechanochemistry. Diesendruck and his collaborators are using mechanically driven
reactions to create novel molecules and new materials capable of responding to both physical and chemical stimuli. As polymers and fiber-composites have become ubiquitous, the tendency of these materials to break, split or otherwise degrade under pressure have limited their application, especially in high-strain environments such as aircraft and automobiles. Diesendruck’s research seeks to better understand how mechanical forces can change molecular bonds and alter the properties of materials, using this knowledge to design resilient, responsive macromolecules for next-generation polymers. In Diesendruck’s vision, these “smart” materials will be customized with specific stress conduction characteristics, respond productively to mechanical strain, and be able to detect and reinforce or repair structural damage. Diesendruck was among the research team that created the first autonomously “self-healing” fiber-composites, a key step toward producing materials that maximize the benefits of composites, including strength and weight, while minimizing the risks from damage and increasing the longevity of these materials in transportation and other applications. Diesendruck’s group is also engaged in exploratory research probing difficult or previously inaccessible chemical transformations that may lead to new reactions and reactants.
Physical Sciences & Engineering Laureate
Anat Levin, PhD, Associate Professor, The Andrew & Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Technion — Israel Institute of Technology
Prof. Levin is a leader in the emerging field of computational photography, which blends computing with traditional imaging techniques to transcend the limitations of even the most advanced cameras, producing novel imaging results and capabilities. Levin’s work is rooted in discovering mathematical foundations and applying them to solve real-
world challenges in imaging and optics. She is the creator of a prototype computational camera specialized to capture moving objects and scenes, which introduces a constant, quantifiable degree of motion blur during exposure to allow for streamlined blur removal in post-processing. Prof. Levin has also worked to optimize the process of colorizing grayscale images and videos, simplifying a historically time-consuming and expensive process using a method that automatically propagates color among pixels based on the intensity of neighboring pixels. Advances in computational photography will have implications that extend well beyond digital photography, including improving medical, microscope and telescope imaging, and ultimately transforming videography. More recently, Levin has published methods for utilizing patterns of light scatter to determine the chemical composition of a material, a technique that could have implications for fields as diverse as ultrasound imaging and air quality assessment. She has also developed dynamic digital displays that instantly adapt to changes in light and viewing angle, and prototype displays that may ultimately enable large-scale, glasses-free 3D movie viewing.
2018 Blavatnik Award Honorees, United Kingdom
Physical Sciences & Engineering Laureate
Henry Snaith, PhD, Professor of Physics, University of Oxford
Prof. Snaith has striven to develop new photovoltaic technologies based on simply processed materials, which have promised to deliver solar energy at a fraction of the cost of incumbent silicon modules. Through a series of key discoveries, he found that metal halide perovskite materials, which had been overlooked for decades because of their very low photovoltaic energy efficiency, can be employed in highly efficient solar cells. He has developed a low-cost synthesis method for the perovskite solar cells, and significantly raised their energy efficiency from 10.9 percent in his first publication to over 22 percent in a single junction perovskite solar cell, and more recently to 25 percent by combining perovskites with silicon solar cells. He is currently pushing the perovskite-on-silicon tandem cells to surpass the 30 percent efficiency mark, making them very promising for industrial applications. He has also significantly improved long-term stability of perovskite solar cells and discovered numerous key fundamental aspects of the perovskite semiconductors, which helped broaden the application range of these materials to include light emission, radiation detection, memory and sensing. Prof. Snaith’s work toward a significant cost reduction in photovoltaic solar power could help propel society to a sustainable future.
Physical Sciences & Engineering Finalists
Claudia de Rham, PhD, Reader in Theoretical Physics, Imperial College London
Dr. de Rham has revitalized massive gravity theory, which is one way of modifying General Relativity to solve the open puzzles of cosmology. The early versions of massive gravity theory had been known for their dangerous pathologies, including a ghost mode and a discontinuity with General Relativity in the limit where the mass of a graviton goes to zero. In 2010, Dr. de Rham solved such problems by constructing a nonlinear theory of massive gravity, which is ghost free and theoretically consistent. Since this breakthrough, Dr. de Rham has further established the effective quantum theory of massive gravity to describe the accelerated expansion of the universe as a purely gravitational effect, with the role of dark energy being played by massive gravitons. Her work has continued to define the field beyond Einstein's theories of gravity and cosmology, and revolutionized our understanding of the fundamental evolution of the universe and the quantum nature of gravity.
Andrew Levan, PhD, Professor of Astronomy, University of Warwick
Prof. Levan works on the observation of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), which are the most luminous and energetic explosions in the universe. He has achieved a new understanding of the rich relativistic physics behind GRBs, and has deployed such phenomena as powerful probes that act as lighthouses to the distant universe. For instance, a new type of GRB he discovered opened an entirely new window onto the properties of black holes at the center of galaxies. Most recently, Prof. Levan has also played a major role in the characterization of the first electromagnetic counterpart to a gravitational wave source, GW170817. This included the identification of the infrared counterpart and leading the first observations of this counterpart with the Hubble Space Telescope. These events provide the astrophysics community with a completely new way to study the Universe, and explore new information from deep inside extreme events, places that cannot be seen with normal light.
Andrew Goodwin, PhD, Professor of Materials Chemistry, University of Oxford
Prof. Goodwin is a world leader in the study of the dual roles of mechanical flexibility and structural disorder in the chemistry and physics of functional materials. Examples of materials that rely on localized disorder to enhance functionality include semiconductors and glass. Goodwin’s laboratory utilizes advanced diffraction and modelling techniques to probe disordered materials and subsequently produce new, tailored materials that display unique properties. Most materials expand upon heating and shrink when compressed; however, Goodwin has discovered that by careful control of the disorder within the structure of a substance, the opposite can occur — materials will shrink upon heating (negative thermal expansion) and expand when compressed (negative linear compressibility). These counterintuitive processes are useful in the design of heat-resistant materials, advanced pressure sensors, artificial muscles and even body armor. Goodwin has also played a key role in the structural analysis of amorphous materials using total scattering methods, which, in the case of amorphous calcium carbonate, the key structural component in bones and shell, led to a complete understanding of the ability of organisms to nucleate different crystalline structures from the same biomineral precursor.
Philipp Kukura, PhD, Professor of Chemistry, University of Oxford
Prof. Kukura develops and applies novel spectroscopic and microscopic imaging techniques with the aim of visualizing and thereby studying biomolecular structure and dynamics. Of particular importance are Prof. Kukura’s recent breakthroughs in scattering-based optical microscopy, where his group was the first to demonstrate nanometer-precise tracking of small scattering labels with sub-millisecond temporal resolution, which enables highly accurate measurements and mechanistic insight into the structural dynamics of biomolecules such as molecular motors and DNA. His group was also able to develop ultrasensitive label-free imaging and sensing in solution, down to the single molecule level, which has the potential to revolutionize our ability to study molecular interactions and self-assembly. The Kukura group continues to challenge what we believe we can measure and quantify with light and use it to improve our understanding of biomolecular function. Ultimately, this technology has the potential to enable a variety of universally applicable and quantitative methods to probe molecular interactions at the sub-cellular level.
Robert Hilton, PhD, Reader, Department of Geography, Durham University
Dr. Hilton’s research has provided new insights on Earth’s long-term carbon cycle and the natural processes that transfer carbon dioxide (CO2) between the atmosphere and rocks. His research has uncovered how erosion of land in the form of geomorphic events (earthquakes and resulting landslides), weathering of organic carbon in rocks, and the export of carbon by rivers can impact atmospheric CO2 concentration. Dr. Hilton and colleagues have developed geochemical and river sampling methods which allow this to be done.
The release of CO2 into the atmosphere through the actions of humans burning fossil fuels has become a concern in recent decades. Dr. Hilton’s research highlights that the natural rates of this process (by weathering and breakdown of rocks) is much, much slower. The planet is currently undergoing dramatic changes with respect to global climate, and it is crucially important to consider whether these aspects of the carbon cycle may amplify human impacts.
Life Sciences Laureate
M. Madan Babu, PhD, Programme Leader, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Dr. Babu’s multi-disciplinary work employs techniques from data science, genomics and structural biology to analyze biological systems. Using this innovative approach, Dr. Babu has made important discoveries about proteins called G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). These proteins are implicated in numerous human disorders, and drugs targeting GPCRs represent nearly 30 percent of all drug sales. Dr. Babu has shown that many GPCRs targeted by common drugs can differ significantly from one person to another, so patients with different versions of the same GPCR are likely to have different responses to the same drug. These findings will begin to identify problematic treatments, and could potentially revolutionize personalized medicine. In a parallel body of work, Dr. Babu has also made fundamental discoveries in the role of so-called “disordered” proteins. About 40 percent of human proteins have a region where the protein becomes more flexible, less structured — these floppy, flexible parts of proteins have puzzled structural biologists for decades. Dr. Babu and his team have helped to establish the roles of disordered proteins in health and disease. Together, these studies shed light on key types of proteins that are integral to human health.
Life Sciences Finalists
John Briggs, DPhil, Programme Leader, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
Dr. Briggs uses and develops state-of-the-art techniques in electron microscopy to understand the structure and functions of biological molecules. He pioneered a technique called cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET), which allows visualization of biological specimens at near-atomic resolution. He has combined this technique with other types of microscopy to identify and image rare and dynamic cellular events. Dr. Briggs was the first to achieve pseudo-atomic resolution for visualization of a biological structure using cryo-ET by imaging the capsid domains of HIV. This remarkable achievement revealed the network of protein interactions governing the assembly of HIV particles, and provides new insights into viral function. Dr. Briggs is at the forefront of structural biology, leading the search for higher resolution visualizations of cellular processes directly within their native environments. By turning these techniques to important biological questions, his work stands to have broad impact on our understanding of the biology of cells and viruses.
Timothy Behrens, DPhil, Professor of Computational Neuroscience, Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences
and Deputy Director, FMRIB Centre, University of Oxford; Honorary Lecturer, Wellcome Centre for Imaging Neuroscience, University College London
Prof. Behrens uses mathematical models, behavioral experiments and neural recordings to dissect the biological computations that underlie human behavior. He has uncovered key aspects of how we represent the world around us, make decisions and guide our behavior. His group has shown that the neural structures used to represent physical space are also used to represent abstract concepts — the brain uses a similar mechanism to encode “maps” of abstract ideas. Such findings have impact on neural network computing and artificial intelligence, but also on our understanding of cognition and mental health. Prof. Behrens has also worked to map the precise anatomy of the human brain, and is leading a large-scale collaboration to map networks of neurons important for cognition. Few fields are more intimately related to our sense of what it means to be human — and Prof. Behrens and his team are at the forefront of this understanding.