The Blavatnik Awards' recognition of young scientists has proved critical to their continued success.
On November 14, the New York Academy of Sciences marked a milestone for the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. Now finishing its fifth year of competitions, the Academy—through the support of the Blavatnik Family Foundation—has recognized the achievements of 67 early-stage scientists in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
"Young scientists represent the future of scientific thought. By honoring these young individuals and their achievements we are helping to promote the breakthroughs in science and technology that will define how our world will look in 20, 50, 100 years," says Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries and head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
The strong competition for grant funding presents an increasing challenge for scientific researchers. Those who receive financial support are in a better position to bolster their early research efforts and, in turn, their scientific careers. "This award program affords the Academy the opportunity to embrace researchers at a critical time in their careers and recognize their talent early on," says Beatrice Renault, senior science advisor at the Academy.
Finalists and winners of the Blavatnik Awards are selected from a group of approximately 150 candidates nominated each year. Candidates must be 42 years old or younger and have made significant contributions to an interdisciplinary field in the life or physical sciences, mathematics, or engineering. Awards are given in two categories: faculty and postdoctoral. Faculty winners receive $25,000, faculty finalists receive $10,000, postdoctoral winners receive $15,000, and postdoctoral finalists receive $5,000; all prizes are awarded in unrestricted funds.
A Vital Stepping Stone
In the five years since the founding of the awards, many scientists recognized by this program have already achieved significant milestones in their careers. "Each year, finalists go on to become department chairs, win highly prestigious awards and grants, and accept faculty positions at top research institutions across the globe," Renault says. "They each exemplify the kind of curiosity, inspiration, and dedication necessary to attend to the most pressing problems of society," she adds.
This early career recognition has been particularly valuable to Daniela Schiller, a postdoctoral winner in 2010 who is now an assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "When you start [a faculty position], the counter turns back to zero," she says. "You have to prove yourself again. Coming in with this recognition is incredibly supportive. It gives you a head start." Her laboratory now includes five postdoctoral researchers and studies the neuroscience behind emotional control.
Steven Gubser, professor of physics at Princeton University, was a 2008 faculty winner. He was subsequently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. Gubser appreciates the ability of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists to bring attention not just to the award winner, but to the entire group of scientists who perform research together. "Science gets done by many good people, not by a few heroes," says Gubser.
In addition to being thankful for the attention that her 2009 win brought to her department and her research, Carmala Garzione, now chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester, has taken the opportunity to build bridges between her work and the non-scientific community. As a result of the award, she has interacted more with the general public as a source for articles in the local media and as an invited speaker at outreach events.
"Science is at risk because of the economy," Garzione says. "Scientists need to be communicating what they do, why it's of value, and how confident we are about conclusions." Similarly, the award has provided a focal point for Schiller to talk with lay people about her research and to focus on the interface between her work and society at large. "Through NYAS I've gotten all sorts of requests to participate in events, and I'm very happy to do it," she says.
Gubser has used the award's visibility to translate science to broader audiences in the form of a popular book, The Little Book of String Theory, published by Princeton University press in 2010. He credits the award with boosting his optimism that this project would be successful. "I'm happy with how the book has been received," he says. "I think it's a win-win; I feel like I serve the field, and dissemination is one of our goals as scientists."
Just Getting Started
With all of this success over the first five years, Renault is excited for the future of the awards. "We look forward to reviewing applications of this high caliber for many years to come," she says.
"Science is crucial to the development of the world and society, but scientists need a lot of support and encouragement," Blavatnik says. And he hopes that the program's reputation will only increase in prominence in the years to come. "This is only the fifth year of our award; in time, I hope that it will evolve into what I would call a 'Nobel Prize for young scientists' with worldwide recognition and worldwide interest from young scientists to participate. In this way, I think we will make a real impact on the development of science and the impact of science on our society."
The call for nominations for the upcoming 2012 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists opens on December 1, 2011, and closes on January 31, 2012. For more information regarding the awards program, including information on how to nominate and a list of 2011 judges, please visit the awards website at www.nyas.org/blavatnikawards.
Sarah Webb is a New York City-based journalist and PhD-prepared chemist who covers science, health, technology, and policy.
Congratulations to the 2011 Blavatnik Award Winners
The Academy and the Blavatnik Family Foundation are pleased to congratulate this year's Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists winners. The winners, chosen for their outstanding contributions to life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, or engineering, are:
Professor, Department of Computer ScienceCornell University
Associate Professor, Department of PhysicsColumbia University
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Genetics & DevelopmentColumbia University
J.F. Ritt Assistant Professor, Department of MathematicsColumbia University
Upward and Onward: Achievements of Past Blavatnik Awardees
Here, the Academy presents a sampling of the many noteworthy accomplishments of past Blavatnik Awards finalists and winners.
Ruslan Medzhitov (2007 faculty winner) of Yale University was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010.
Valerie Horsley (2008 postdoctoral finalist), previously a postdoctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University, is now an assistant professor of molecular, cellular & developmental biology at Yale University. In 2010, she won a Pew Scholar Award.
Tamas Horvath (2009 faculty finalist) of Yale University won the NIH Director's Pioneer Award in 2010.
Yaron Lipman (2010 postdoctoral winner), previously a postdoctoral student at Princeton University, is now a tenure-track assistant professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science's Department of Computer Science & Applied Mathematics.
Michal Lipson (2010 faculty winner) of Cornell University received a MacArthur fellowship in 2010.
Agnel Sfeir (2010 postdoctoral finalist), previously a postdoctoral student at The Rockefeller University, is now an assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine's Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine.
Mary Kay Lobo (2011 postdoctoral finalist), previously a postdoctoral student at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is now an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology.