Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

Meet the 12 finalists in the 2009 competition.

Now in its third year, the Academy's Blavatnik Awards competition, made possible through the generosity of Academy Governor Len Blavatnik, acknowledges and celebrates the excellence of the most noteworthy young scientists and engineers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. The awards recognize highly innovative, impactful, and interdisciplinary accomplishments in the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering with unrestricted financial prizes for both finalists and awardees.

The Academy is indebted to a panel of 63 esteemed judges who conducted two rounds of reviews and made decisions based on the finalists' elegant, innovative, and significant interdisciplinary research projects. Eight faculty awardees will receive up to $25,000 and four postdoctoral awardees will receive up to $15,000 in unrestricted funds. Winners will be announced and all finalists will be honored at the New York Academy of Sciences' 6th annual Science & the City Gala on November 16th.

Sreekanth Chalasani
Sreekanth Chalasani

Age: 33
Provenance: Secunderabad, India
Current Position: Postdoctoral fellow, Rockefeller University; will be moving to Salk Institute to start his own lab

A groundbreaking experiment in gene therapy performed in 1990 by William F. Anderson initially inspired Sreekanth Chalasani to pursue a career in biology. He soon found that more research was needed to fulfill the promise of gene therapy, leading him to choose research over medicine. He turned to neurobiology, fascinated by the brain and by specific questions surrounding how animals respond to changes in their environment.

"The brain is a beautiful system with a hundred billion cells, each of them making about 10,000 connections. We know very little about how it works," he says. Chalasani uses the nematode, C. elegans, as a model to understand how neural circuits transform sensory input into behaviors that occur on different timescales from a few seconds to many minutes. "The nematode nervous system controls a very interesting behavior that lasts many minutes and includes random events," Chalasani says. For instance, animals that have been removed from food spend about 15 minutes searching for it and executing behaviors at random intervals, he explains.

His research uses a combination of genetics, imaging, and behavior analysis, and employs engineering technologies to probe the nematode's neural circuits. The goal: "If we can figure out these kinds of simpler processing modules, we will understand how larger modules in the brain work. In most cases, complex networks are merely connections of simple networks."

Eager to improve student access to the laboratory experience in his home country, India, Chalasani co-founded Indigenèse Biotechnologies, which teaches basic molecular biology techniques to undergraduates. He plans and coordinates the educational program from the US. "It's hard to get excited about biology without access to a lab," he says.

Paul Chirik
Paul Chirik

Age: 36
Provenance: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Current Position: Peter J. W. Debye Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Cornell University

Paul Chirik's research in the field of organometallic chemistry—the study of reactions of carbon-based materials with metals—is infused with his life-long interest in world history. "What I've always liked about synthetic chemistry is the ability to make something that no one else ever made before. It's like being an explorer."

Sustainability and meeting the world's energy needs are seen by Chirik as molecular chemistry problems, and his research aims to find ways to end fossil fuel and precious metal dependencies. His approach consists of two main projects: identifying mild methods for nitrogen N2 fixation and finding methods for replacing toxic precious metals in chemical synthesis.

In Chirik's view, the discovery of how to make synthetic ammonia fertilizer from atmospheric nitrogen was the most important technological innovation of the 20th century. Yet the techniques used in modern ammonia synthesis have seen only minor improvements in the last 70 years. Chirik's research group has discovered zirconium and hafnium compounds that promote the hydrogenation of N2 in solution under mild conditions. His team found that these compounds can also be used to assemble organic molecules directly from N2 and CO2, which are abundant, inert atmospheric gases. Chirik says these results "pave the way for energy-efficient use of atmospheric nitrogen as a feedstock for the synthesis of fertilizers, fuels, pharmaceuticals and fibers."

"Modern alchemy" is the term Chirik uses to describe his other main project, which focuses on using inexpensive, innocuous iron compounds to replace toxic precious metals used as catalysts in chemical synthesis. "We're working on trying to trick iron into acting like rhodium or platinum. Can you replace rhodium with iron in catalytic converters? Can you use iron instead of platinum in a fuel cell?" he asks. "There is not enough platinum on the planet to enable fuel cell technology. We have to solve that problem. That's the next horizon."

Ofer Feinerman
Ofer Feinerman

Age: 38
Provenance: Rehovot, Israel
Current Position: Postdoctoral fellow at the Gregoire Altan-Bonnet Laboratory, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Ofer Feinerman recognized the beauty and elegance of science when, as a high school student, he read about Einstein's theory of relativity. He went on to study theoretical physics, but decided to shift from string theory to biology, where "the phenomena are at the same time baffling and experimentally tractable."

His research in immunology focuses on the communication strategies that enable the formation of reliable, rich biological systems from many smaller, less reliable components. The immune system's primary T-cells are noisy. That is, they tend to react differently to the same stimulus, and this, Feinerman has shown, renders them inherently and extremely unreliable. "Yet somehow when we move from these very noisy single cells to the whole system level, decisions become much more reliable." He has been able to demonstrate restoration of reliability in a different neural system by showing how microcircuits composed of many noisy neurons can consistently perform logical operations.

Feinerman also works on understanding the role of regulatory T-cell interception of the chemical messages sent by ordinary T-cells when signaling that a virus is present and trying to decide as a group whether to attack. He thinks this interfering behavior may serve as a contest to the emerging conclusion of the system, forcing it to overcome an obstacle before reaching a final determination. Such population-level "proofreading" of potential decisions could contribute to overall system reliability.

"Now is the perfect time for a physicist to enter the field of immunology," Feinerman says, describing his approach as a marriage of numbers to the biological world. "I want to bring quantitation to immunology and tilt the field in that direction. Using these tools to identify the general principles that orchestrate noisy cells into a meaningful system will lead to advances that can be translated to more effective treatments for disease."

Carmala Garzione
Carmala Garzione

Age: 37
Provenance: Washington, DC
Current Position: Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Rochester

Carmala Garzione likes to think about the way climate and mountains interact, and she is fascinated by the dynamic relationship between the earth's surface and its atmosphere. "Mountains provide large barriers to climate, which steers and changes atmospheric circulation. I focus on regions where we can trace the record of climate and how it responds to the growth of mountains."

Prior to the last decade scientists lacked the ability to measure anomalously high-elevation regions, such as the Andes and the Tibetan plateau, over time. But Garzione has developed an approach for measuring surface elevations in the past that sheds light on the tectonic processes that cause mountain uplift. Previously it was assumed that folding or faulting of the earth's crust tracks the long-term surface uplift of a mountain belt. But Garzione's team recently documented in the Andes that this range's surface uplift took place long after the faulting there occurred, "which tells us that shortening and thickening of the upper crust is not the only process that causes mountains to rise. Deeper crustal and mantle processes must also be involved."

Over the long term, Garzione hopes her research will provide insight into the fundamental tectonic processes that build vast high-elevation plateaus. For now she hopes to focus on applying a new elevation proxy based on temperature histories of carbonate sedimentary rocks. "We'll be looking at surface temperatures over time in remote regions in northern Tibet whose elevation history has been difficult to trace because it's a complex region climatically," she says. "The mere presence of Tibet has a big influence on atmospheric processes. If we could apply some of these newer techniques to understanding Tibet's elevation history, it could fuel exciting interdisciplinary research that bridges geoscience and atmospheric science."

Tamas Horvath
Tamas Horvath

Age: 42
Provenance: Nagykoros, Hungary
Current Position: Professor and Chair of Comparative Medicine, Yale University

Although tennis and basketball were his passions as a youth, Tamas Horvath's curiosity about problems faced by biology researchers led him to read James Watson's book The Double Helix. "I became intrigued by the flow of events and the excitement of the discovery documented by the author," he says. When the time came to choose a career path, Horvath chose biology, then followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather and trained to be a veterinarian. He soon realized he preferred research to clinical work and began a postdoctoral program at Yale that focused on the neuroanatomy of the hypothalamus.

Today Horvath's main research interest is the neuroendocrine regulation of homeostasis, with particular emphasis on metabolic disorders and the effect of metabolic signals on higher brain functions and neurodegeneration. Horvath believes that uncovering the governing principles of cellular energy metabolism, which provides the "fundamental cornerstone" for every living organism, will transform the comprehension of physiological and pathophysiological processes.

What, when, and how we eat affects the body's peripheral tissues, sending messages directly to the brain, causing it to reorganize its circuits. "After lunch the connections in the cortex will be different than they were before breakfast," Horvath explains. "Hypothetically, this enables us to perform better at certain tasks at certain times of the day." Would it be feasible to intervene in brain function to selectively alter feeding behavior linked to diabetes or obesity? This is one of the puzzles Horvath's team seeks to solve. He is philosophical about the potential outcome: "Regardless of our ultimate finding, the research process will help us develop different strategies and take a broader approach to treating these disorders and other conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, aging, and cancer, all of which share the same cellular metabolic processes."

Lam Hui
Lam Hui

Age: 40
Provenance: Hong Kong
Current Position: Associate Professor, Department of Physics, Columbia University

Lam Hui chose physics over his other main interest, philosophy, when he entered the University of California, Berkeley, as an undergraduate. He later completed a PhD in theoretical cosmology at MIT. Early on, he became fascinated by the history of physics and how ideas about the universe evolve with time. "I was impressed with the idea that science is not so much a task of collecting facts about the universe but also about constructing powerful ideas in order to understand it."

His primary research interests focus on big questions: What happened the very first moments after the big bang? How did the universe evolve from those initial moments to its present state? "The answers promise to teach us much about physics at very high energies," he says. "They are also intimately connected to the question of dark matter and dark energy, of which more than 90 percent of the universe is comprised today, yet about which very little is known."

Hui's interdisciplinary approach employs both particle physics and astrophysics. "We need to use all the tools at our disposal to answer these questions," he says.

Hui and his collaborators have illuminated the thermodynamics of the intergalactic medium. They have developed a new algorithm for simulating the low density of high redshift quasars known as the Lyman-alpha forest. And Hui says their work on the fundamental physics of the intergalactic medium "has helped spawn a new field of cosmology that turned the Lyman-alpha forest into a treasure trove of cosmological information." As he pursues his analysis of dark energy, Hui hopes to develop models "that are both theoretically compelling and testable" to explain the mysterious acceleration of the universe's expansion. "This is the big puzzle for us," he says.

Ben R. Oppenheimer
Ben R. Oppenheimer

Age: 37
Provenance: New York, New York
Current Position: Associate Curator and Professor, Department of Astrophysics American Museum of Natural History

Ben Oppenheimer has always had a passion for stars. "When I was a child, I saved for a telescope and couldn't stop reading about the cosmos. The Hayden Planetarium in New York City was a favorite place for me growing up," he says. As an undergraduate at Columbia, Oppenheimer studied physics and worked closely with an astronomy professor who assigned him X-ray imaging projects.

The field of adaptive optics was coming into prominence in astronomy when Oppenheimer was in graduate school at Caltech. He was part of a team that used this technique at the Palomar Observatory. "An application for this is looking at objects that are close to nearby stars. I collaborated on a project to find objects of intermediate mass between planets and stars, later called brown dwarfs. We were lucky and did find the first one known. That was an exciting moment."

Oppenheimer continues "to look for things orbiting stars." His research incorporates input from optical, mechanical, cryogenic, electrical, and software engineering to develop new telescope imaging instruments that filter out the speckled contamination light radiating from stars. This enables smaller, fainter objects such as exoplanets to be seen and their spectra analyzed. "No one has cracked this problem of how to eliminate the light contamination yet, so there is no roadmap," he says.

Through observatory-based projects, Oppenheimer's team is collecting large amounts of data including information about a proto planetary disk comprised of dust orbiting a star that shows organizational structures, as if objects are forming inside. "We are actually seeing the process of a solar system forming," he says. He foresees the ability to use imaging and atmospheric spectral analysis to categorize planets according to traits such as age, atmospheric chemistry, and the presence of life. "This is what really drives me." he says.

Eva Pastalkova
Eva Pastalkova

Age: 34
Provenance: Prague, Czech Republic
Current Position: Research Associate, Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University

Eva Pastalkova seeks to uncover how spatial and episodic memories are formed and maintained in the network of neurons in the hippocampus. Among the puzzles that fascinate her: "When you sit down and start thinking about your work, hobbies, or relationships, the brain spontaneously forms ideas and questions. What does the brain neuronal network do to generate this activity on its own? How does the brain create and maintain memories?"

Pastalkova was a member of a team that studied mechanisms that maintain long-term potentiation (LTP) of the synaptic connections between neurons. LTP is believed to be the primary cellular mechanism responsible for learning and memory. She and her colleagues demonstrated that the mechanism maintaining LTP also sustains spatial memory in rats, a finding that was hailed by Science as one of the 10 big breakthroughs of 2006.

In her current research, Pastalkova and her colleagues study the activity of hippocampal neurons while a rat is performing a memory task. "We demonstrated for the first time that neuronal activity related to the memory and planning of an animal is generated by the brain internally, similar to when you are sitting in a chair and thinking," Pastalkova says. This work opened the possibility to study the relationship between internally generated spatial memories in rats and episodic memories in humans. She is hopeful that these findings will also encourage further research into the mechanisms that internally organize activity in brain structures other than the hippocampus.

Long distance running enables Pastalkova to be her own experimental subject. "I think that everybody who runs has the same experience: The external world disappears, the brain sinks in and generates new insights, allowing me to see things from unexpected points of view." In January, Pastalkova will be starting her own lab at Janelia Farm, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Center.

Alexander Pechen
Alexander Pechen

Age: 30
Provenance: Moscow, Russia
Current Position: Research Associate Chemistry Department, Princeton University

In his youth, Alexander Pechen had an avid interest in nature and mathematics. At 16 he went on to study physics at Lomonosov Moscow State University and later completed a PhD in mathematical physics at the Steklov Mathematical Institute in Russia, where his work focused on the analysis of stochastic dynamics of atomic and molecular quantum systems.

Pechen describes his current research at Princeton as "an exploration of the field of the control of open atomic or molecular systems"—those which interact with their external environment. "Such control problems are ubiquitous because controlled or optimized open systems arise in many scientific disciplines, including chemistry, physics, and biology," Pechen explains. The control of chemical reactions in solution, the production of selective excitations in atomic beams, and the genetic mutations that determine the fitness and success of an organism are all examples of control or optimization performed to maximize certain desired properties of open systems.

Through analysis based on a unified description adopted from the theory of open quantum systems, Pechen discovered that it is possible to develop a single, unified mathematical treatment for a wide range of open system control phenomena; this came as an "intriguing surprise," he says. Robert Kosut, vice president and cofounder of the Systems & Control Division of engineering and research firm SC Solutions, describes Pechen's mathematical analysis of control landscapes—imagine mountain peaks representing optimal best outcomes, and small hills representing less desirable outcomes—in open systems as "pioneering," and says that the analysis applies across many disciplines "showing the essential elements of the topological structure inherent in these seemingly disparate problems."

Pechen's next challenge is to build on this new understanding of open systems by investigating the implications of the general analysis of their common control properties for specific problems in physics, chemistry, and biology that are unified under his mathematical description.

Shai Shaham
Shai Shaham

Age: 40
Provenance: Jerusalem, Israel
Current Position: Associate Professor and Head of Laboratory, Rockefeller University

Shai Shaham grew up in a scientific household—his father was an astrophysicist and his mother is a human cytogeneticist—and as a child he was drawn to astronomy and physics. He went on to study biochemistry and mathematics in college, eventually focusing on biology.

A lover of puzzles, Shaham discovered "a wonderful problem to think about" in the form of glial cells. "In vertebrates, including humans, glia make up the vast majority of the cells in the nervous system, yet we know little about the functions or molecular effectors of these cells. In some sense, glia are the dark matter of the brain."

His current research uses the nematode C. elegans, which is a model he would like to promote as an important in vivo system for studying glia as the field emerges. "We discovered that glia in this nematode model don't affect neuronal survival as they do in vertebrates. This gives us the opportunity to remove these cells and ask what effect that has on the neurons left behind." He is excited by his lab's recent finding that glia associated with sensory organs in C. elegans have the ability to sense the environment independently of neurons, implying an active versus passive role.

His lab's discovery of a novel form of cell death may intersect with his work in glia to improve understanding of the genesis of degenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's. "Recent studies suggest that glial cells play a crucial role in regulating the survival of neurons that die inappropriately in both of these diseases," he says.

In addition to his enthusiasm for puzzles, Shaham also has a passion for music that is backed up with considerable talent. In his spare time he moonlights as a pianist with the Greenwich Village Orchestra.

Daniel Sigman
Daniel Sigman

Age: 40
Provenance: Los Angeles, California
Current Position: Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, Princeton University

Motivated by a profound interest in the natural world, and especially the ocean, Daniel Sigman works to understand why the Earth has been so stable a platform for life for such a long time. "We don't know why the environment works," he says. "The Earth has been habitable by complex multicellular organisms for hundreds of millions of years. The chain of life, generated more than 3 billion years ago, appears not to have been broken since then. This stability is remarkable. What we are seeking is a general theory for why this occurs."

Sigman originally chose the field of Earth science out of an interest in the highly structured nature of the environment, as well as a reluctance to give up thinking about any one domain of basic science. Today he notes that the basic sciences have evolved to be far more interdisciplinary.

Sigman's research considers the biogeochemical processes that "transform and transport biologically important chemicals." He has developed a novel approach for analyzing natural stable nitrogen isotope ratios and uses this tool to gain insight into the ocean's nitrogen cycle and its history. He also builds geochemical models of the global ocean and atmosphere to understand the significance of his results for the global carbon cycle and to guide his measurement efforts. "One major question is why the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide changes in step with the waxing and waning of ice ages," he says. "The connection with nitrogen is that it is an important nutrient for ocean algae, which take up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis."

Mud is Sigman's archive. "It's pretty exciting to find a parameter to measure in that mud that will tell you important things about the ancient ocean, like the nutrient concentration in surface waters and the rate of the process that brought nitrogen into the ocean in the past."

Denis Zorin
Denis Zorin

Age: 41
Provenance: Moscow, Russia
Current Position: Associate Professor of Computer Science, Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University

The most exciting moments in Denis Zorin's work in developing efficient computational algorithms for complex shapes occur when he discovers an unexpected connection or insight, such as a simple formula, that leads to a practical algorithm. For example, enabling vastly larger simulations of particles in a flow, or simplifying and speeding up cloth animation. Zorin's algorithms are used in applications that range broadly from computer-aided design of products like car bodies and shoes to animation and biophysical simulations.

Influenced by his mother, a physicist, and "pulled in" to science by a specialized math and physics class in high school, Zorin became interested in the interface between math and computer science as a teen. His path ultimately led to the study of computer graphics in graduate school. "The great attraction for me was that this was interesting mathematically and at the same time it also had immediate applications that were visual and accessible."

Today Zorin's research focuses on geometric modeling and scientific computing. A significant portion of his research aims to develop technology that is robust and reliable enough to apply to many different problems. "What my collaborators and I are doing is often one step removed from an application, but our work is strongly motivated by applications that are sufficiently broad so that the approach we develop could find its way into a variety of tools," Zorin says. His work on subdivision surfaces found applications in a variety of settings from computer animation to CAD/CAM industries.

Zorin says he likes to think in terms of why as opposed to how. "I'm interested in why a particular technique works or why it doesn't," he says. "I'm looking for insights that could lead to further developments in theory, but ultimately my goal is to create better tools for scientists and engineers."