The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point

The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists focuses on providing early-career support—critical for turning young researchers into tomorrow's innovators.

On a weekday morning in late summer, Valentino Tosatti sounded out of breath, but utterly content. He had just arrived on the Northwestern University campus, having ridden his bicycle from his new apartment nearby. Birds could be heard chirping in the background, and Tosatti, a fast-talking 31-year-old mathematician, seemed chipper and excited.

It was his first week on campus after having been hired as an associate professor.

Tosatti, however, had not been offered a tenure-track position at Northwestern. Instead, the University had awarded him flat-out tenure, providing him with a sense of purpose and security that young PhDs can often only dream about.

So, there was Tosatti, buying new furniture and exploring the beautiful Evanston, Illinois, campus, as wide-eyed as the incoming freshmen moving into dorms and spilling onto quads all around him.

Tosatti admits, however, that his picture-perfect career may have remained but a dream was it not for a special award he received in 2011. "I guess it's been sort of an avalanche effect since the Blavatnik," he says, chuckling slightly, but only because the last few years of his life have been such an adventure.

And so it goes with legions of young scientists, engineers, and mathematicians from across the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Every year since 2007, the most accomplished among them have been nominated for the New York Academy of Sciences' Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists competition.

Investing in Potential

The importance and impact of the awards have grown substantially since their inception in 2007. Today the awards often serve as pathways for future success—barometers for the scientific potential of recipients like Valentino Tosatti, who otherwise might struggle for research funding, cope with a lack of recognition, and hop between jobs without the security of tenure.

Indeed, honorees speak of a double-boost they experience upon earning a Blavatnik Award. For starters, they receive unrestricted funds aimed at fostering future breakthroughs in research and innovation. Winners in the faculty category are endowed with $25,000, while faculty finalists receive $10,000. Postdoctoral winners are awarded $15,000 in unrestricted funds, while postdoctoral finalists receive $5,000.

Financial support, many past recipients stress, is hugely influential when it comes to expanding research in the life and physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering—the main Blavatnik Award domains comprised by the 35 disciplines recognized by the awards.

Tosatti, who was a 2011 postdoctoral winner while working in Columbia University's Department of Mathematics, says he used a portion of his unrestricted funds to travel to China for a month and a half. There, he worked with a Chinese colleague who was interested in applying mathematical applications to string theory and physics.

"It makes a huge difference, especially in math, because we don't have big research labs," Tosatti says of the Blavatnik funds. "Therefore, our grants and financial resources are not that great. Even when universities have grants in math it's not that much." Tosatti also used part of the award to fund a one-day conference at Columbia on geometry and differential equations—"like the Einstein equations," he says by way of an explanation.

Another 2011 postdoctoral winner, Franck Oury, who works in Columbia University's Department of Genetics and Development, says he planned to use some of his award money to help pay for travel to upcoming job interviews for faculty research positions, and also to subsidize his daughter's pre-school tuition. "In the U.S., daycare is kind of expensive so it'll be a big help," says Oury, 34, originally from eastern France.

Others have found their own, often enterprising, uses for the money. One past recipient used the award to start her own behavioral psychology lab; another paid an annual salary to his lab's postdoctoral researcher; others donate their endowments back to their host institution in order to enhance their department's development pipeline.

A Better World Through Science

Still, all Blavatnik Award recipients cite a significance that extends far beyond the financial, something that is imperative to the mission of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, which endows the awards. Len Blavatnik, the founder and chairman of Access Industries and head of the Foundation, underscores the importance of acknowledgment and exposure for the groundbreaking work of young scientists.

"Recognizing and supporting young scientists is critical if we are to successfully address global challenges," says Blavatnik, who also sits on the Academy's Board of Governors. "Their exceptional discoveries represent our future and our hope for a better world for all." The Foundation, Blavatnik notes, looks forward "to encouraging many more brilliant young scientists in the years ahead as they pursue their ground-breaking work."

Beatrice Renault, the Academy's senior science advisor in charge of the Blavatnik Awards, says the responsibility of the next generation of scientists is crystal clear: to develop and nurture "the skills and motivations necessary to tackle research topics that will impact not only their own disciplines, but also the general public at large."

But Renault stresses that such emerging scientific leaders cannot do it alone. "They need support, mentorship, and recognition at the critical moment when they transition from 'young scientist' to leader and innovator in their scientific field," she says.

The Blavatnik Awards, Renault adds, "provide the encouragement necessary for emerging scientists to take those leaps that lead to true impact."

A Rigorous Journey

With the goal of broadening the impact of the awards in mind, the 2012 program has been a major step in the right direction. One hundred and seventy-four young science and engineering professionals submitted applications—the largest pool of applicants in the program's history.

But submitting a Blavatnik Award application, which follows a lengthy nomination process, is just the beginning of a rigorous months-long journey. Deans at universities in the tri-state area serve as gatekeepers for nominees; they nominate only those researchers who they feel represent the best work of their organizations. Applications are later scrutinized by a panel of more than 60 expert judges. Judges evaluate the quality, impact, and novelty of each application in the 35 separate disciplines. Safeguards are in place to ensure integrity and to maximize inclusiveness in the awards. For instance, judges never evaluate candidates from their own institution.

David Skelly, the associate dean of research at Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, knows firsthand the rigors of the Blavatnik Awards process. He began judging in 2011, served again in 2012, and is eager to continue. "These are people doing phenomenal work in all branches of the sciences," Skelly says, "and it's really fantastic to be part of shining a light on some of the work they're doing."

Putting Science at the Forefront

"It's much easier for people out there to get turned on by university sports and so on, and this is a way that the intellectual mission of our institution gets a bit of the media attention that it deserves," Skelly adds. "It really shows how deep the pool of talent is as well." On a personal level, Skelly says he is pleased that the awards continue to expand in new directions and that they are beginning to include the field-based biological sciences (including his own disciplinary focus: ecology).

But any young scientist, regardless of his or her discipline, benefits tremendously from the exposure that comes with an award as prestigious as a Blavatnik, Skelly emphasizes, echoing the words spoken by several recipients, past and present.

"It's just never been more challenging for younger faculty members to get out of the blocks," Skelly says. "The federal funding scene has been a really tough place. Even really great younger folks are having trouble getting funding."

Skelly continues: "There's no question that these kinds of awards give an independent validation to the folks that receive them." And he cannot help but be pleased that a fellow Yale faculty member, Alison Galvani, picked up a 2012 Blavatnik Award.

"It can be a particular struggle to secure funding in untraditional research areas," explains Galvani, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University's School of Public Health. In particular, she notes the difficulty, in her case, of obtaining adequate funding to explore the applications of mathematical modeling for public health challenges.

"Not only is the Blavatnik Award an exciting honor on a personal level," she says, "it also brings recognition more generally to the burgeoning field of epidemiological modeling."

Opening Doors

A 2007 faculty finalist, Kathryn Uhrich was one of the first Blavatnik Award recipients. Having witnessed the stature and importance of the awards grow exponentially, she has evolved into a sort of Blavatnik evangelist for her students at Rutgers University, where she is now dean of mathematics and physical sciences and professor of chemistry and chemical biology.

"There's so much amazing science that goes on in this region, and it's a great opportunity to recognize that," Uhrich says. "I view it as very prestigious. I work to get my Rutgers people to apply for the Blavatnik Awards competition every year."

"The fact that you're getting recognition so early on is a confidence builder," Uhrich continues. "It's also an opportunity to network with individuals in the region. You're rubbing shoulders with the best of the best."

To be sure, Tosatti sounds a bit star struck as he recalls the night of the Blavatnik Awards ceremony in 2011. "Sitting on my left was Jim Watson, the Nobel prize winner," Tosatti remembers with a laugh, rattling off an all-star list of leading scientific minds. "And then there was Mr. Blavatnik and his wife. There were a lot of distinguished guests. It was something totally new to me."

But Tosatti and other Blavatnik recipients say that, networking aside, the true value of the awards lies in their ability to inspire—to encourage more production and ingenuity from emerging leaders.

For his part, Oury is genuinely passionate and excited as he explains his own research: demonstrating that a hormone released by the skeleton regulates male fertility.

"Each organ is talking to one other, and this is necessary for the well-being of the body," Oury says, noting that he and his team are just getting started. "We are not doing this job for the awards. But it's always nice when your work is appreciated by somebody," Oury adds.

He says he is looking forward to seeing where his Blavatnik affiliation will lead. "This award is very helpful for getting interviews; it shows the job you did was evaluated and selected by a community," he notes. "It gives some value to your career."

This value, Skelly stresses, is all the more important "because the sound-bite culture that is happening all over the place is also happening in the sciences. It sends a signal of the importance of science in society," he adds, "and this is a message we need to hear more often these days." The Blavatnik Awards "hopefully can be, in some sense, self-fulfilling," Skelly said.

Success Begets Success

Such a prophecy seems to have paid off for Tosatti, who landed a Sloan Research Fellowship very shortly after earning his Blavatnik Award, and later, the tenured position at Northwestern, where he is prepared to leave his mark.

Most of the time, Tosatti says, for a scientific researcher, "you are just thinking about a problem and you are stuck." Those breakthrough moments, he says, portrayed in sweeping journal articles, books, and film, are rare.

But when success happens, Tosatti adds, "You write a paper. And if the idea is really good, the paper becomes kind of important and a lot of people stop to read it." However, it takes a long time and an incredibly large amount of work and perseverance—and, of course, support and recognition—to get to this point.

Without hesitating, Tosatti said that his Blavatnik Award has undoubtedly accelerated his career; the award helped him and other young scientists reach that vital tipping point. "It really has a direct impact," he says, headed across campus to continue his research. "I feel really lucky to have been chosen."


Noah Rosenberg is a New York City-based journalist.

Top image:
Winners of the 2011 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, (from left to right) Valentino Tosatti, Johannes Gehrke, and Franck Oury, take a moment to pose with their medals at the Academy's Science & the City Gala.

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The 2012 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists: Winners and Finalists


 

Please join the Academy and the Blavatnik Family Foundation in congratulating the winners of the sixth annual Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. Of the 11 postdoctoral and faculty scientists selected as finalists, an unprecedented nine winners were selected.

 Faculty Winners
 
B. Andrei Bernevig
Condensed Matter Physics
Princeton University
 
Jason Fridley
Ecology & Ecological Economics
Syracuse University
 
Alison Galvani
Public Health & Applied Mathematics
Yale University
 
Assaf Naor
Mathematics & Computer Science
New York University
 
Faculty Finalists
 
Michael Collins
Computer Science
Columbia University
 
Wei Min
Physical Chemistry
Columbia University
Postdoctoral Winners
 
Andrey Feklistov
Structural Biology
The Rockefeller University
 
Michael Hahn
Astrophysics
Columbia University
 
Robert Johnston
Developmental Biology
New York University
 
Elisa Oricchio
Clinical Medicine
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
 
Nicholas Stavropoulos
Genetics & Genomics
The Rockefeller University