It’s good to be young. Three researchers in biology, chemistry and physics have won the inaugural Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, a new national prize rewarding promising research by scientists under 42.
The $250,000 award, established by the charitable foundation of billionaire industrialist investor Leonard Blavatnik, is now the largest unrestricted cash prize awarded across a broad range of disciplines for early-career scientists. For comparison, Nobel Prizes are worth $1.2 million and are split among up to three researchers, whereas the recently created Breakthrough Prizes award $3 million to each winner. Neither are restricted to younger scientists. Contenders for the Blavatnik Awards were judged for their scientific boldness, future promise and prior accomplishments. “You get the sense that their best work is in front of them,” says Mercedes Gorre, the prize program’s executive director.
Winner Marin Soljačić, 40, designs materials with exotic electromagnetic and optical properties and has investigated technologies for wireless power transfer. Soljačić says his approaches are unconventional. “I personally purposely try to take risky and bold steps,” he says, “rather than going for more ‘safe’ projects.” The prize “is a great confirmation that my way of doing things works,” says Soljačić, a physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It will embolden me to keep taking even bolder steps in my research in the future.”
Adam Cohen, 35, a chemist at Harvard University and another of the three winners, agrees that one of the prize’s biggest impacts on him will be to promote riskier projects. “I’m always full of crackpot schemes,” Cohen says, “I think the recognition and the support will make it easier to do some unconventional things, or to explore new directions.”
Cohen’s past work has been anything but conventional. He spliced a protein extracted from an exotic Dead Sea bacterium into neurons, making those brain cells pulse with light as they communicated with electrical signals. Seeing that light will aid scientists in their study of how neurons interact. “The brain has been one of the most mysterious pieces of matter in the universe…and this is starting to give us the ability to see what’s going on inside of our own cells,” he says. “Every thought and feeling and hope and dream that we have is encoded in these patterns of electrical impulses.”
Rachel Wilson, 40, also spends her time unraveling the mysteries of the brain, but in a very different way. Wilson, a neurobiologist at Harvard, won her award for studying the brains of fruit flies and trying to decode the electrical signals that give rise to complex phenomena such as a sense of smell. “If we understand how the brain of a fly works, we will have a better template for how we might approach more complicated brains,” Wilson said in a prepared statement.
Wilson, Soljačić and Cohen survived a process that winnowed 322 nominees from 164 universities nationwide down to 30 finalists and, eventually, to the three winners. The three are already superstars who have won other prestigious awards. In 2008, Wilson and Soljačić both received MacArthur Fellowships—commonly referred to as “genius grants”—and in 2011 Cohen was awarded a prestigious fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Given such accolades, not to mention that they are professors at Harvard and MIT, two of the world’s most prestigious universities, it’s fair to wonder whether the new awards will alter their career trajectories. “That’s a really good question, ” says Gorre, who says that since this is such a new prize, only time will tell. Beyond the prestige and money of the award, Gorre’s hope is that the prize will give these scholars a bigger audience. “What we hope to accomplish individually for them is to give them this platform to be able to talk about their work to a very broad audience,” she says.
Shining a light on inspiring researchers could set prizes like the Blavatnik Awards apart from grants and fellowships, the more traditional academic awards. “It captures the imagination of a lot of people beyond ‘Well, here’s another grant, here’s another fellowship,’” she says. “Let’s do a prize and get some young folks up there and let them show us about how great they are.”
Cohen agrees, saying that while he hopes the prize will help him pursue new and innovative research its biggest effect could be to inspire others. “I really think the impact of awards like this,” says Cohen, “is more for younger scientists and students who are still trying to decide what to do, by showing that it’s possible to be young and to still do new things and that there’s a huge amount of exploration and discovery yet to be done.”