Prizing Our Best & Brightest

A new Academy award supports early-career scientists whose work will transform our world.

Last November, five extraordinarily talented young scientists won the first annual NYAS Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. One was hoping to address the killer challenge of malaria through her remarkable insights in smell and odor. Another had developed the software that allows 40% of our banks to read our signatures. A third has been developing nanosensors that could revolutionize health care by creating new, easy-to-use medical diagnostics. The list of remarkable pursuits by these early career investigators goes on.

There's a plethora of honors bestowed on renowned, seasoned scientists and engineers each year—the Kavli Prize, the Lasker Award, the Millennium Prize, the National Medal of Science, and the Nobel Prize are among the most prominent. But the Academy's new prize was funded by a leader committed to supporting the discovery process. While other prizes honor the world's proven scientific stars, the award established by Access Industries CEO and newly elected Academy Governor Len Blavatnik will support and promote tomorrow's leaders at the point in their careers when they need that most. It's known that many ground-breaking and career-defining discoveries have been made by scientists before the age of 45. The Blavatnik Awards don't just support these scientists at a critical time. They also bring attention to the work of people who, with their youthful vigor, might have a better chance than their own graying mentors do of inspiring America's youth to follow their path.

In this issue of the magazine, we introduce the 16 finalists for the 2008 Blavatnik Awards. I highly recommend that you peruse the brief descriptions of their accomplishments. I wager you'll have as hard a time as I did deciding which five you would choose as winners.

A committee of 52 esteemed senior scientists made that decision, which will be announced at the Academy's Science & the City Gala on November 17. I might have waited until the names became public, but this column is devoted to making a too-infrequently-made point about our brightest young investigators: their contributions are already transforming our world, and I contend that they deserve as much attention as researchers who have achieved their full measure of fame.

This point has become a basic mantra of your Academy's staff. For the last five years, all of us have dedicated ourselves to identifying tomorrow's leaders in every way we can. In fact, I propose that one thing that makes your Academy special is its devotion to those who will change our common future.

Some examples of our "youth drive":

  • In June 2003, students—including graduate students and postdocs—comprised less than 2% of Academy membership; today 25% of NYAS members are students.
  • Now entering its sixth year, our Science Alliance for Students & Postdocs provides skills-building opportunities and career education for emerging scientists and boasts more than 30 university members in the New York area and beyond. Overall, Academy programs attract roughly 6000 young scientists annually. Many thousands more young people use our exciting and informative Web site, which attracts some 400,000 unique visitors per month.
  • The program committees that organize our 60–70 Frontiers of Science events each year invite the most promising young scientists to speak and to share their research through posters.
  • At our conferences, seats reserved for our academic, government, and industry partners ensure audiences filled with hand-picked excellent young scientists.
  • And now we've entered the world of prize-giving. The Blavatnik Awards honor the best and brightest researchers under age 42 working at New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut universities. In addition, Kyoto's prestigious annual Science and Technology for Society Conference has asked the Academy to select a dozen of the most promising young researchers from around the world for recognition; Johnson & Johnson has asked the Academy to help it organize a pair of prizes for the most brilliant young investigators in China working in specific fields; and other organizations have initiated conversations with us about prizes that would identify and honor leading young investigators in their regions.

The concept is bracing: why wait until everyone knows someone to honor him or her? And why not develop role models for our youth by honoring and supporting the earliest accomplishments of tomorrow's science and technology heroes?

If you find these ideas exciting and would like to support the Academy's efforts to reward young scientists, or if you work for an institution that would like to partner with the Academy in developing new prizes for the young, please let me know: erubinstein@nyas.org.

Ellis Rubinstein