What Does it Take to Win the Blavatnik Award?
Common threads of excellence unite this group of young scientists.
by Mercedes Gorre
Now that the Blavatnik Awards are in their 8th year, with a cadre of successful honorees comprising the alumni community, it is an opportune time to step back and ask, "What makes a Blavatnik Award winner?" Since 2007, more than 1,000 outstanding young scientists have been nominated in the regional program, and 90 have received Blavatnik Awards. This year, the inaugural Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists drew more than 300 nominations, yielding 27 finalists and 3 laureates.
After sitting in on the jury deliberations for these awards, I can attest to the fact that discussions about whom to select are sometimes heated, occasionally unanimous, but always fascinating and informative. It's tempting to look for a pattern—are there qualities that Blavatnik honorees have in common?
The official criteria for the awards bear reviewing. Nominees are judged in four main areas. The first is quality, defined as the extent to which the work is reliable, valid, credible, and scientifically rigorous. At this level, the quality of the work is universally excellent and many nominees score maximum points in this area.
Nominees are also judged on impact—the extent to which their work addresses an important problem and is influential within their field—and novelty, or the degree to which their research challenges existing paradigms, employs new methodologies and pursues answers to original questions. Both categories have more varied assessments and often depend on the individual field and the point of view of the judges. Finally, there is the category of promise. This is new to the judging process this year, and I believe it's one of the most interesting assessments. The category aims to capture the idea of trajectory, and help the judges zero in on those who have outperformed their peers thus far, and are most likely to accelerate on this path.
Many of the judging criteria have an objective aspect to them, as they rightfully should. Blavatnik Award winners must, empirically, represent excellence. But there are intangibles as well—less formal qualities and characteristics that make them really stand out. Biologist James Rothman, when asked why he was able to pursue the challenging work that won him the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, credited three things: the "arrogance" or "courage" that comes with youth, solid funding from government agencies, and a great mentor. When I consider the Blavatnik Awards winners, it seems there are similar intrinsic characteristics and circumstances that tie them together.
Rothman referred to his inner, driving force as "arrogance" or "courage," but I prefer to say that our alumni are fearless. And while that fearlessness maybe attributed to their relative youth, I believe these scientists have an extra degree of tenacity and optimism that will stay with them through their careers. It fuels their work ethic and drives them to make discoveries in areas that others hesitate to tackle.
Blavatnik Awards winners are also characterized by a striking degree of gratitude and a remarkably humble nature. When they talk about their work, it is readily apparent that despite the difficulties and frustrations—and there are many—they view the fact that they make their living in science as a privilege. Many felt their first stirrings of interest in science as children, and express a sense of knowing that this was meant to be their life's work. When winners reflect on their jobs, they often joke that their work isn't actually work. The long hours, the "failed" experiments, the answers that remain elusive—it's all worth it. They happily persevere because they love science and are dedicated to it.
The last tie among winners harks back to Rothman's comment. He mentioned funding and mentorship as being key to his success. Together, I view those critical elements as support—something the Blavatnik Awards winners enjoy without exception and not merely by chance. Blavatnik Awards winners tend to seek support, and often gain it. They know how to communicate the importance of their work to funding sources, and are successful at obtaining grants. They have cultivated relationships with their mentors, earned the respect of their peers, and are viewed as worthwhile investments by their institutions. It is no surprise that their institutions submit enthusiastic nominations on their behalf, and that their colleagues contribute outstanding letters of support.
While there is no perfect formula for making a winner, honorees of the Blavatnik Awards stand as sterling examples—not just of what it takes to achieve this type of recognition, but of how persistence, gratitude, humility, and sheer genius can render even the most difficult tasks possible.
As is the nature of awards programs, preparation for the new cycle begins in advance. The nominating period for the 2015 Blavatnik Awards is nearly here—submissions must be received between September 30 and November 25, 2014. It is perhaps one of the most exciting times of the year at the Academy, as news of the spectacular work of young scientists arrives on our desks from around the country, and the process begins anew.
Mercedes Gorre, PhD, is Executive Director of the Blavatnik Awards.