An Ode to the Power and Beauty of Science
Failure is no match for the first recipients of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, whose boundary-breaking work is shaping the future.
by W. M. Akers
When Adam Cohen was in high school, his mother was not surprised to see him come home with a paper bag full of cockroaches. A budding scientist with an interest in the brain, Cohen wanted to study the sensitivity of the insects' antennae, and had secured the sack of roaches from a contact at the American Museum of Natural History.
"I took them home and I said 'Hey, look, Mom! Look what I got!'" he says. "She told me I could keep them, but if the cockroaches got out then I was going too."
Cohen, now 35, erected a security system around the cockroach cage and built himself a tiny operating theater to begin his experiments. As anesthesia he used carbon dioxide harvested from a bottle of seltzer, but the operation took longer than expected, and the seltzer soon went flat. "I had gotten halfway through the surgery on this poor cockroach and I had no more anesthetic," he says. "So the thing woke up on the operating table. Of course it was worse for the cockroach, but that was also very traumatic for me."
The experience soured Cohen's taste for vivisection. He stopped experimenting on the cockroaches, but kept them as pets. He hadn't learned anything about their antennae, but he had grasped the most important lesson a young scientist can learn—that failure is nothing to fear.
This year, Cohen joined Rachel Wilson and Marin Soljačić as the inaugural recipients of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. After eight years of honoring scientists in the tri-state area, the Blavatnik Family Foundation has taken their annual award national, accepting candidates from 162 universities in 42 states. A jury of scientists chose 30 finalists, ultimately selecting Cohen, Wilson, and Soljačić as the 2014 laureates.
They will each be given a $250,000 prize—the largest unrestricted prize awarded to early career scientists—and honored at a black tie dinner on September 15. This year also marked the debut of the Blavatnik Science Symposium, an annual conference that brings together previous finalists and winners, allowing them to share the experiences that have led them this far in their careers.
"Our goal is to celebrate America's exceptional young scientists," says Len Blavatnik, head of the Foundation, "and showcase their achievements to inspire the next generation."
Though they work in different fields, the three 2014 winners share an understanding that in science, failure is often the first step to success. Despite the frustration that unsuccessful experiments often bring, each winner knows that their profession is, in the words of Marin Soljačić, "the greatest fun around." This award will help keep the fun alive—for the future of science and for all mankind.
Whole Hog Biology
When it wasn't playing host to cockroaches, Adam Cohen's childhood bedroom was a makeshift electronics lab, packed with computers and televisions he had rescued from the garbage in order to take them apart and put together again. It was "a death trap," he says, but "as long as I didn't electrocute myself, I could basically do what I wanted in there."
"Though they work in different fields, the three winners share an understanding that in science, failure is often the first step to success."
"I was fascinated by the intricate and ingenious mechanisms that people had come up with in order to make everyday machines work," he says, "and how all this is hidden from the outside if you're just operating the machines."
After receiving PhDs in theoretical and experimental physics from Cambridge and Stanford, Cohen came to Harvard to run his own lab, investigating the mysteries of the most complex machine of all—the "warm, wet, squishy environments" of the human brain. For two years, he and his team worked to unravel
the mysteries of rhodospins—proteins that microorganisms use to convert sunlight into energy, or to sense sunlight so they can move away from it. His goal was to study the way a single rhodospin would react when exposed to light.
"But the amount of light that we had to shine on it to see the signal from a single molecule was more than the protein would ever see in nature," he says. "It was so intense that it basically fried the molecule."
After two years of frustration, Cohen was forced to give up on the project. Rather than discard two years of work, he looked for a way to use his lab's understanding of rhodospins to help neuroscientists visualize electrical activities in neurons. By studying the way rhodospins produce electricity, he realized it could be possible to observe neural activity at the single-cell level in real time—a technique which could have untold applications across medicine.
"So I said to myself, can we run these things in reverse?" Cohen recalls. "Instead of having light come in and a voltage come out, can we use a change in voltage to produce a detectable optical signal?"
It was, he says, a "very vague, somewhat crackpot scheme," but it worked. Soon, they were using "reversed" rhodospins to understand electrical transmissions, first in bacteria and now in eukaryotes—an avenue of research that has meant outfitting his lab with equipment rarely used by physicists: a tissue culture hood, a mouse colony, human stem cells, and live zebrafish. "We've gone whole hog biology," he says, laughing.
If Cohen had given up after the first experiments with rhodospins failed, none of this would have happened. The Blavatnik Award is a testament to the fact that he was right to persevere. "We tried 45 experiments, every single one of which was a complete failure and then the 46th one worked," he says. "And of course, I had no idea that one was gonna work, but when it happened, that was a transcendent moment."
Nuts and Bolts
"I'm not one of those people who knew I wanted to be a scientist at age five," says Rachel Wilson. Though always passionate about chemistry, she never considered pursuing a career in research until she was an undergraduate at Harvard. In need of a neuroscience paper that wasn't available at the main library, she made a trip across the river to Harvard Medical School. In the library and on the quad, she saw an entire community of people dedicating their lives to scientific research. It was, she says, "a revelation." Research didn't just have to be a means to an end—it could be her life.
Inspired by her mother, who returned to school for a PhD in early childhood education after years of teaching, Wilson, 40, has made a career studying the brain. But while her mother's passion is the minds of young students, Wilson studies something far smaller—the brain of the common fruit fly. Though smaller than a sesame seed, its 100,000 neurons make it more complicated than any computer ever built.
"Fruit flies live pretty complicated lives," she says. "They can fly—I bet you can't do that! They can fight, and they use all different kinds of fighting maneuvers. They court each other, they sing courtship songs, and they can solve pretty complicated navigational problems. So if you leave a banana skin in the trash, in the morning, there are tons of flies around it. They had to solve a hard problem to find it and get there."
Although fruit flies have long been a workhorse of biology labs, only recently has their usefulness in neurology become clear. It seems impossible that their tiny brains could be related to our own, but Wilson's neurobiology lab at Harvard has been inspired by recent discoveries of direct parallels between the fruit fly brain and those of fish and mice. Connections with the brains of larger mammals seem within reach, which means that every question she answers about the fly's brain could someday inform us about our own.
"How can a fruit fly identify and discriminate between odors far better than any man-made device?" she asked. "How is the fly able to translate small movements of its antennae into information about sounds, and then, on the basis of those sounds, avoid a predator or choose a mate? These are tricky things. I think that there's a lot of... there's a lot to be learned from the biology of this tiny brain that we haven't learned yet and I'm excited to come to work every day and make some progress on that."
Outside of the lab, Wilson is mesmerized by the development of another remarkable brain—that of her two-and-a-half year-old son, a construction enthusiast who likes to spend time in hardware stores, learning about all the different tools.
"He especially likes the axes," she says, "which requires a fair amount of supervision on my part. Our local hardware store has a bucket full of mismatched random bolts and nuts, and if we find a bolt and nut that fit together, they let us take them home for free."
It takes a long time to find a bolt and nut that fit perfectly, which means that Wilson's son is already learning to be patient and push past failure—something Wilson considers essential for any scientist.
"Sometimes, science can be incredibly discouraging," Wilson says. "That's the whole point of it."
The Best Job in the World
As a child in Croatia, Marin Soljačić designed spaceships. Inspired by Carl Sagan's Cosmos, he spent his free time dreaming of ways to help humanity conquer the stars. When he grew up, he was certain he would be an inventor with a galactic bent.
"I had gotten halfway through the surgery on this poor cockroach and I had no more anesthetic...so the thing woke up on the operating table. It was worse for the cockroach, but also very traumatic for me."
"I thought I was drawing a spaceship that would go to another galaxy or something," he explains. "I spent enormous time drawing these new inventions, [although] they weren't inventions, because they couldn't work."
To learn how to make his spaceships fly, Soljačić, now 40, studied engineering at Zagreb's prestigious math and science high school. He was planning to attend the University of Zagreb, where his father is professor emeritus of chemistry, but as he neared high school graduation, the war for Croatia's independence grew more intense. During the fall of his senior year, his family spent "almost half our time in the air-raid shelter." When a friend applied to MIT—which Soljačić knew as the alma mater of his favorite comic book character, Martin Mystère,—he decided to follow suit.
"The war was getting worse and worse," he says, "and you never know how war can end, right?"
His freshman year in Boston was not easy—his English was "good enough to get me into MIT," he says, "but not much better than that." But his education in Zagreb had given Soljačić a rich background in the sciences, and he thrived in the academic climate of the United States. He had long ago given up on becoming an inventor, but found that "being a professor at a research university in America is kind of as close as it gets."
After earning his MA and PhD in physics from Princeton, Soljačić returned to MIT in 2000 and became a full professor in 2011. In 2007, he used his inventor's imagination to found WiTricity, an engineering company devoted to wireless energy transfer. One of their earliest breakthroughs was the Wireless Warfighter, which charges batteries and mobile devices in combat conditions. They are currently working to adapt that technology for consumer use, a breakthrough that Nikola Tesla once wrote, "will bring peace and harmony on earth." The difficulties that accompany such an endeavor have not daunted him.
"It's crucial to have fun," he says, "that's the only way to succeed. So, no it's not a hard job. It's the best job in the world, as far as I'm concerned."
Soljačić no longer designs spaceships, but the technology that goes into wireless energy transfer is something that even his childhood self couldn't have dreamt up. After more than two decades studying in the United States, he has not lost the sense of wonder that carried him into the field in the first place. To him, science is a creative field—no different from painting or sculpture.
"I look at it very much as a form of art," he says. "The most important, the biggest steps that we make in terms of science or in terms of engineering are when you look at them and you think, 'Wow! That is beautiful.'"
And that creativity is what the Blavatnik Award celebrates—the scientists who have been able to push past frustration, and into the realm of beauty.
W.M. Akers is a journalist in New York City.
The Blavatnik Awards: Timeline
The Blavatnik Awards are created to celebrate the outstanding postdoctoral and faculty scientists who work in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
The Blavatnik Family Foundation doubles prize money for winners and finalists for 2013.
Photo: 2012 Blavatnik Regional Awards honorees and Len Blavatnik.
The Blavatnik National Awards are created. The Awards grant three $250,000 prizes in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry to faculty scientists.
Photo: 2013 Blavatnik Regional Awards honoree Bi-Sen Ding.
The Blavatnik National Awards receives over 300 nominations representing more than 160 American universities and research institutions from 42 states.
The Blavatnik Regional Awards receives over 220 postdoctoral nominations from 32 institutions in the tri-state area.