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The New York Academy of Sciences Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

The New York Academy of Sciences Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

From theorizing the Big Bang to developing paleomagnetic records, this year's class of awards finalists is already producing earth-shattering science.

In April this year, the prescience of the New York Academy of Sciences' Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists judges was proven: Yale University immunobiologist Ruslan Medhzitov, an Awardee in the first Blavatnik Awards competition, was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

The 12 outstanding scientists who have been named as finalists this year show just as much promise for professional accomplishment. The five postdoctoral fellows and seven faculty, hailing from eight New York-area academic and research institutions and representing nine distinct scientific disciplines, were selected in June by a jury of 58 leading scientists after two intensive rounds of reviews of more than 130 applications.

The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists were established at the New York Academy of Sciences in 2007 by the Blavatnik Family Foundation to recognize highly innovative, impactful, and interdisciplinary accomplishments in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering with unrestricted financial prizes for both finalists and awardees. In addition to performing the highest quality work, candidates must be under 42 years of age.

"Encouraging and supporting young scientists is critical if we are to successfully address society's challenges," says Len Blavatnik, chairman of Access Industries. "Unlike awards that honor scientists late in their careers, the Blavatnik Awards are designed to recognize and reward promising young scientists early in their careers when they need it most. These brilliant young scientists represent our future and our hope for a better world for all."

Academy President Ellis Rubinstein announced the finalists in June, saying, "The New York Academy of Sciences is proud to recognize the most accomplished young scientists who are working to advance science and technology in the world's greatest cluster of universities and academic medical centers."

Among the group profiled here, the faculty awardees will receive $25,000 in unrestricted funds, while faculty finalists will receive up to $10,000 in unrestricted funds; postdoctoral awardees will receive $15,000 in unrestricted funds, while postdoctoral finalists will receive $5,000 in unrestricted funds. Awardees will be announced and all finalists honored at the Academy's seventh annual Science & the City Gala in New York City on November 15th, 2010.

Elza Erkip

Elza Erkip, 41

Associate Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Polytechnic Institute of NYU // Engineering // improvement of wireless technology efficiencies

At primary school in her native Turkey, Elza Erkip loved mathematics. But when she began college, she decided that rather than become a mathematician as planned, she would prefer to be an electrical engineer. "I thought that becoming an engineer was probably a good tradeoff, because I would still do a lot of math, but I'd be involved more with hands-on things that have relevance in the physical world."

Erkip is one of the pioneers of cooperative communications, a wireless communication strategy in which each of two devices sending information to the same destination can include the other device's information in its own transmission. She established that if devices in a wireless network process and forward signals overheard from other mobile devices, they create faster more reliable link for everyone. This method of communication also reduces energy consumption and lowers radio spectrum utilization.

"In a regular cellular phone call, your phone talks to a base station tower but that link may not always be very reliable," Erkip explains. "In cooperative communications, as my cell phone talks to a base station tower, there may be other cell phones around that also will act as communication links, forwarding what I say to the base station."

This method ensures that even if your link to the base station is not reliable, one of the multiple copies of your message that are repeated and sent by nearby phones will still reach its destination.

Erkip explains that she could envision a scenario in which people would volunteer to allow their devices to process nearby wireless network signals in return for better quality and more reliable service. Although, she adds, the first implementation of cooperative communications in wireless networks will probably not be neighboring cellular phones acting as repeaters. Instead it is likely that first we will see the installation of relatively cheap (in comparison to base stations) repeater devices that can be fixed to the side of buildings and used to forward mobile signals.

David Evans

David Evans, 40

Professor, Department of Geology & Geophysics, Yale University // Earth Sciences // paleomagnetic records

For someone whose life's work is to reconstruct what Earth looked like 2.5 billion years ago by analyzing the magnetism of rocks, it's curious that David Evans didn't have a rock collection as a child. The geologist/geophysicist was more interested in math and puzzle solving. It wasn't until he was introduced to wilderness camping as a teenager that he was awakened to a possible career path, he recalls. "I thought if I could find a passion that combined math and puzzle solving with being outdoors, that would be perfect."

Now, Evans spends at least one month of the year at sites in Australia, southern Africa, and northern Canada, among other places, studying the ancient magnetic fields that are preserved in rocks at the time of their formation in order to understand the history of the continents on very long time scales.

Before the continents we know today, and before the supercontinent Pangea that existed 200–300 million years ago, evidence suggests there were two earlier supercontinents—Rodina and Nuna—though no one knows what these vanished landmasses looked like or how they were positioned.

Evans uses the paleomagnetism of rocks to determine where they were in the world when they were formed, and he hopes to reconstruct a quantitative pre-Pangean history of plate motions through the last two billion years. "By looking at rocks from all the continents from all different ages, in principal we could draw a series of global maps through earth's history," Evans explains.

Evans is also interested in trying to better understand the history of the magnetic field of Earth itself. Unlike the dating of rocks, which relies on known decay rates that remain constant, paleomagnetic analysis is a little trickier because the earth's magnetic field varies slightly over very long time scales.

"The more we do to put a picture together of how continents were arranged, the better we'll be able to find the patterns of the magnetic variation," he explains "It's kind of like a crossword puzzle, how solving an 'across' clue gives you letters that help you better solve the 'down' clue with which it intersects."

Zoltan Haiman

Zoltan Haiman, 39

Associate Professor, Department of Astronomy, Columbia University // Astronomy, Astrophysics & Cosmology // early-universe black holes

From the age of six, theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist Zoltan Haiman wanted to be an architect. In 1989, he moved from Hungary, where he grew up, to Boston to attend MIT and major in architecture. Then, during his freshman year, he read the book A Brief History of Time.

"It really amazed me," says Haiman. "I was at MIT where a lot of things described in the book happened. I realized I had access to this kind of life."

Taking advantage of MIT's resources, Haiman switched majors and started a research project with Walter Lewin about the Andromeda Galaxy. He stuck with astronomy and now uses his physical intuition to cultivate new ideas on a range of topics including how the first generation of stars and black holes formed in the universe, how we can detect black hole mergers, and how we can probe the nature of dark energy and gravity. He predicts phenomena that current and future telescopes will be able to observe.

Haiman's work on the properties of gravitational waves showed that the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), will be able to localize the source, in three dimensions, of a tell-tale, time-dependent electromagnetic signature produced during a black hole merger. In fact, he demonstrated that LISA will detect the signal several weeks in advance of the merger and can thereby trigger a counterpart-search with conventional wide-field telescopes. Observers might have missed the opportunity to search for the black hole merger with other instruments if the LISA mission had not been re-designed to send data to Earth every day or so, instead of the less frequent transmissions originally planned.

A long-distance runner who has completed several marathons, Haiman frequently hashes out ideas while pounding the pavement. "There are theorists who like to take existing data and explain it," says Haiman. "But I like to think about the future. I like to do theoretical calculations that are relevant for data that will be available within my lifetime."

Yaron Lipman

Yaron Lipman, 33

Postdoctoral Fellow, Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics/Department of Computer Science, Princeton University // Computer Sciences // shape matching

Computer scientist and applied mathematician Yaron Lipman finds his work a little bit like a riddle-solving game. "It's almost a childish thing in some sense," he says. "Mathematics can seem abstract and nonconstructive to some people, but I find it an interesting challenge to find mathematical concepts that might seem nonconstructive but that still can be used to create algorithms to solve problems that would be too hard to solve otherwise."

Lipman's research is largely in the fields of discrete differential geometry, geometric processing, computer graphics, and approximation theory/applications. "What I try to do is formulate a given problem mathematically and solve it in its most general case such that we can try to create tools that might be accessible to other disciplines," Lipman explains.

One recent tool Lipman designed was related to the automatic detection of morphological features in biological forms. "It's the holy grail [in morphology] to improve the extent you can recognize or identify species based on the geometric shape of bones," Lipman says.

In a recent paper, Lipman put his algorithm, which is based on conformal geometry, to the test by using it to examine 114 teeth and fossils from lemurs. He found that the computer yielded classification rates comparable to ground truth determined by paleontologists.

Lipman explains that the advantage of an algorithmic discrimination tool is not just that it is faster than painstaking human examination, but also that it provides an objective measure beyond the influence of researchers subconsciously hoping to support or disprove a certain hypothesis. "The good thing and bad thing about computers is that they do not have any opinions," he says. "A computer compares objectively, describing entities strictly using properties that characterize the shape."

Michal Lipson

Michal Lipson, 40

Associate Professor, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Cornell University // Engineering // optical nanostructures and silicon photonics

The daughter of a professor of cosmology, Michal Lipson knew from a young age that she wanted a career in the sciences. Lipson, who was born in Israel and moved with her family to Brazil at the age of eight, says that her father spoke with passion about his work and frequently took Lipson and her twin sister to visit telescopes.

"My parents made it very clear that physics was the most beautiful thing you could do," Lipson says. "My father was in love with his work. He'd talk about how great it was to have a job where you get paid to find out how the world works."

Lipson's sister grew up to be a space physicist and Lipson combined her physics background with engineering to be an innovator in the burgeoning field of silicon photonics, which aims to replace some traditional electronics, such as electronic wires, on a silicon chip with optics. Lipson was the first to demonstrate a micron-size electro-optic modulator on silicon, which had previously been considered an inferior photonics material due to its lack of electro-optic properties.

The merging of electronics with photonics will shape the computing and broadband communications technologies of tomorrow, Lipson explains. "In the future, computers will be run by lights on computer chips," she says. "Optics could alleviate some of the power problems in today's computers, making them faster and allowing them to operate without getting so hot."

Lipson, who has two sons ages 6 and 13, is very active in mentoring and advising women interested in pursuing careers in science. "There are few women in science and engineering, and even fewer who have a family," she says. "It's important to send a message that it is possible to do both. There is no reason why men can have a career and a family, and women can't."

Haitao Liu

Haitao Liu, 32

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Chemistry, Columbia University // Nanotechnology // low-cost DNA sequencing

Haitao Liu was initially drawn to organic chemistry in part because it allowed ample scope for invention. "Organic synthesis allows you to make a large number of molecules. You can invent any molecule you want and you're 95 percent sure you'll be able to make them in the lab," he explains. "Chemistry gives you the power to make new things and I think that feeling kind of grabbed me. I became fascinated with making new materials and putting them to good use," he says.

Liu's newest invention could have significant implications for DNA sequencing: he has developed a new type of nanopore device based on single-walled carbon nanotubes that is able to achieve translocation of a 25kbp single stranded DNA. The device consists of two liquid reservoirs connected by a short section of carbon nanotube. When single-stranded DNA passes through the nanopore, the negative charge of the DNA molecule modulates the ionic current that flows through the pore. "It's possible in the future that we may be able to use this technique to sequence DNA," Liu says.

Current methods of DNA sequencing are labor intensive and cost prohibitive for most clinical applications. However since Liu's nanopore method could potentially sequence DNA at the single molecular level, it could dramatically reduce the cost of gene sequencing and make personalized diagnosis and customized treatment based on genomic makeup a more affordable possibility.

Liu, who was recently hired as assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Chemistry, explains that as much as he enjoys making things, pushing the limits of science for its own sake isn't enough. "I like to link my research to the potential benefits for human beings," he says.

Evgeny Nudler

Evgeny Nudler, 39

Julie Wilson Anderson Professor, Department of Biochemistry, New York University Medical Center and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute // Biochemistry // RNA transcription elongation

Although his father was a microbiologist, Evgeny Nudler's family did not hope for their son to go into science. Instead, they thought he should follow in the footsteps of his famous cinematographer grandfather and go into the movie industry. But growing up in Russia, Nudler was always fascinated by visits to his father's lab. By the age of 14, he had decided that he wanted to pursue biology as his career.

After attending Moscow State University, Nudler got a break when he was recruited by Alexander Goldfarb, a microbiologist and former émigré from Russia, who, as a well-known political dissident, was only allowed to return to visit Moscow at the end of the Gorbachev era. Nudler came to America and began research in the Goldfarb lab at the Public Health Research Institute in New Jersey.

Nudler's first field of focus was transcription mechanisms at the detailed molecular level, but his current research program demonstrates that he excels in many diverse areas. His non-overlapping projects include studies of transcription elongation and gene control, biochemistry and physiology of biochemistry and physiology of nitric oxide, and RNA sensors and stress response.

Nudler explains that it is not that he is scattered and unable to focus on one issue, but rather that many exciting things are to be found on the border between two fields. "When you work in different areas, sometimes you have an idea of how completely different things could actually be connected," he explains.

"Plus, it can be too tempting to tackle question after question until the inquiry becomes so narrow that nobody is interested except you. At a certain point I realized that I should stop myself and look at bigger picture problems—even from other areas of research."

A one-time professional swimmer, Nudler also used to practice the martial art of Shorinji Kempo. In recent years, time constraints have forced him to give up his practice, but he hopes that in a few years, when his son is 9 or 10, it will be an exercise they can enjoy together.

Nicolas Reyes

Nicolas Reyes, 33

Postdoctoral Associate, Department of Physiology & Biophysics, Weill Cornell Medical College // Structural Biology // membrane proteins and glutamate transporters

When not zipping around the city on his bicycle, Nicolas Reyes is in the lab studying the integral membrane proteins that catalyze movements of polar solutes across biological membranes.

Reyes, who grew up in southern Spain, originally set out to be a physician. But after a college course on the basics of membrane biophysics, he decided to give up the idea of practicing medicine and commit himself to research.

Much of Reyes' research is focused on glutamate transporters, ion-driven pumps that concentrate the neurotransmitter glutamate into neurons and glia through a series of conformational changes and binding/de-binding reactions of the transmitter and ions. He uses X-ray crystallography to gain structural information about the proteins at a near-atomic resolution.

"Basically, what we've been trying to do is capture a snapshot of how a transporter protein moves and changes shape as it does its work, which can tell us a lot about how it functions," explains Reyes.

"There are two good images of the protein," he says. "But they are only static snapshots. Let's say you've never seen a horse running. Someone shows you a picture of a horse and you see the position of the legs, but it's hard to know how it is going to move the legs and how it's going to run. You actually need a couple of snapshots to understand how the movement takes place."

"We have a good idea what states [the snapshots] correspond to and we know we have a state that we are missing," Reyes says. "But we still have many snapshots to complete. Ultimately we'd like to have a movie made out of snapshots in different states that shows us how these proteins move and how they achieve transport across the membrane."

Daniela Schiller

Daniela Schiller, 37

Postdoctoral Associate, Department of Psychology, New York University // Behavioral Sciences // fear, emotional control, and emotional memory erasure

Daniela Schiller has always been interested in emotions—how they are represented in the brain and in particular how you can change emotional memories. "Emotional memories are so strong," she explains. "And they are quickly created. You quickly become afraid of something or attached to something. Then you're stuck with it. I'm interested in learning how you can change that, how you have some flexibility to overcome strong memories. To do that, you need to know how memory works with emotions."

Earlier this century, it was thought that memory storage was a one-time process—that once a memory was stored, it was fixed and stable. Each time you retrieved a stored memory, it remained exactly the same as it was when it was originally stored. However, in the last decade, a theory called reconsolidation caused researchers to look at memory storage in a different way. Reconsolidation suggests that each time you retrieve a memory, the storage process must be repeated, and it suggests that an accessed memory awaiting re-storage returns to a labile, non-stable state.

Animal studies have shown that an accessed memory can be damaged or weakened while it is awaiting reconsolidation, but few studies have been done on human subjects. Schiller studied this reconsolidation phase of memory in humans with non-invasive behavioral intervention timed to coincide with the re-storage of a fear memory. Her work shows that the human brain can update its representation of fear with new learning and her approach may promote novel methods of treatment.

"We want to keep even our bad memories because they are who we are," Schiller says. "But we also want to feel safe." Her research suggests there may be hope for patients dealing with traumatic memories that don't allow them to function in every day life. "There is a window of opportunity to change memories," she says.

Agnel Sfeir

Agnel Sfeir, 31

Postdoctoral Associate, Laboratory for Cell Biology & Genetics, The Rockefeller University // Cell Biology // DNA replication

When Agnel Sfeir joined the PhD program at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, she had to do a rotation in three different labs before picking a topic upon which to focus her research. Once she worked with telomeres, special nucleoprotein structures that shield the natural ends of linear chromosomes from DNA damage response machinery, she was hooked.

Sfeir explains that she was drawn to the field because it is very broad and because insights about telomeres can be applied to many different scientific research areas. "What I liked about telomere biology is that it is critical to the understanding of several human diseases including cancer, aging, and genomic instability. I liked that I wouldn't just be studying one aspect of biology, but instead many different fields from one perspective."

Telomeric DNA is composed of long tracts of TTAGGG repeats that form specific and unique binding sites for shelterin, a protein complex that inhibits the DNA damage sensing and repair machineries. In her initial work, Sfeir revealed that mammalian telomeres behave like common fragile sites, which are specific chromosomal sites that are prone to breakage during DNA replication. Using single molecule analysis (DNA combing), she visualized the replication of individual telomere molecules and noted that the repetitive telomeric DNA sequence often impedes replication fork progression. Sfeir's work identified telomeres as an excellent model system to study common fragile sites, which could be hotspots for genome rearrangements in cancer and have been difficult to analyze due to their diverse sequence features.

During her post-doctoral training, Sfeir has combined cell biology and mouse genetics to discern the function of two components of the shelterin complex, TRF1 and Rap1. She has discovered that TRF1 is crucial in facilitating replication fork progression at telomeres and that Rap1 is dedicated to repressing homologous recombination, a specific form of repair reactions.

When not in the lab, Sfeir, who grew up in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, likes to swim, watch movies, go to concerts, and generally enjoy all that New York City has to offer.

Songhai Shi

Songhai Shi, 36

Assistant Member & Bristol-Meyers Squibb/James D. Robinson III Junior Faculty Chair, Program in Developmental Biology, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center // Neuroscience // mammalian neocortex development and brain disorders

Songhai Shi grew up in rural southeastern China. The son of farmers, he excelled academically and was very interested in all of the sciences. At Xinghua University in Beijing, Shi decided to study biology because he felt that it was a field with a lot of open questions to explore.

"My parents, who do not have a higher education, were very proud of me when I passed the university entrance exam," says Shi. "After I was admitted to university, they didn't pressure me to go into any particular career. Really, I fell in love with research."

Shi uses a unique combination of high-resolution imaging, electrophysiology, in utero manipulation of gene expression, and mouse genetics to try and better understand the development of highly specific neuronal circuits in the mammalian neocortex, which is the part of the brain that controls nearly all aspects of behavior, including perception, cognition, learning, memory, and decision making.

"A major focus of my research program is to bridge the gap between early development of the embryonic and neonatal neocortex and the emergence of highly specific circuit formation in a mature brain," says Shi.

In mammals, the cortex is organized into functional columns composed of repetitive nerve cell units arranged in vertical orientation, but little is known about how the vertical orientation develops. A single stem cell can produce a number of neurons in the vertical direction, and Shi has demonstrated that there is preferential synapse formation between sister cells that come from the same progenitor cells.

"Nobody has ever demonstrated this type of lineage-dependent circuit wiring in the mammalian brain," explains Shi. "This has implications for certain brain diseases, such as Autism and schizophrenia that are believed to relate to wiring or circuit formation of the cortex."

Neal Weiner

Neal Weiner, 36

Associate Professor, Department of Physics, New York University // Astronomy, Astrophysics & Cosmology // the Big Bang and dark matter

Neal Weiner first became interested in theoretical physics because he was interested in the idea of free will. As a young man, he found the notion of the mechanistic universe as described by Newtonian physics unsettling. "If [the universe] is all action and reaction, then everything is just a machine," he explains. "And if everything is machine, there's no free will."

In order to see if he could find an outlet for free will, Weiner began reading books on chaos theory and quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanical notion that an observation can be influenced by the observer comforted him because it left scope for the universe to behave unpredictably.

Weiner's research career has been a continuation of his quest to understand how the universe functions. He considers theories that go beyond conventional understanding of the universe and generates ideas that impact the design and interpretation of experiments. In particular, he considers how new forces for dark matter can change our expectations of how it can be discovered.

Over the past two decades, scientists have shown that only four percent of the energy of the universe is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. The rest is dark matter. Weiner explains that we can't observe dark matter. The evidence of its existence is tied only to its gravitational effects. Therefore, to understand the form and behavior of dark matter, we must approach it from a theoretical angle.

"At the end of the day, we make a best guess about how dark matter works based on hints from astrophysics, underground experiments, and our theoretical motivations, and we go from there," Weiner says. "It's a gamble, because a guess could be completely wrong."

But Weiner is only a little hesitant when his theories lead to bizarre or improbable conclusions because, he says, "Historically, the actual laws that govern the universe are so much weirder than what you would have guessed."

Leslie Taylor, formerly a New York Academy of Sciences editor, is a freelance writer and project manager for the Science Friday Initiative, where she oversees their Web site for science enthusiasts,