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Rewarding Research: Top Scientists Share $3-Million in Kavli Prizes

Prestigious award recognizes seven researchers for their pioneering contributions to nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics



World Science Festival

Mildred Dresselhaus, the so-called “queen of carbon science,” took home the $1-million Kavli Prize in Nanoscience today. The materials scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was awarded for her work in revealing the strange thermal and electrical properties that carbon develops at the atomic scale. These discoveries helped lead to the development of novel materials, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes, which have applications in energy, medicine, optics and electronics.

Dresselhaus is one of seven researchers who received the Kavli Prize for discoveries in the fields of nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics. The winners were announced Thursday at the World Science Festival in New York City, via a live broadcast from Norway.

Three researchers, whose work focused on understanding perception and how affects behavior, shared the $1-million Neuroscience prize. Cornelia Bargmann of The Rockefeller University illuminated the first neuronal pathway between a sensory receptor protein and behavior in nematode worms. Ann Graybiel of M.I.T. revealed that areas of the basal ganglia in the brain reorganize when an organism learns new things. The third winner, Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, was recognized for his pioneering work in connectomics— mapping the brain's neural connections.

The astrophysics prize went to a group of researchers who discovered and described the Kuiper Belt—the ring of planetary leftovers that encircles our solar system. David Jewitt (University of California at Los Angeles), Jane Luu (M.I.T) and Michael Brown (California Institute of Technology) used advanced optical techniques to find the belt and analyze its composition. The frozen objects in the Kuiper Belt are thought to preserve the primordial materials that helped form the early solar system.

Before the winners were announced, President Obama’s science and technology adviser, John Holdren, gave a lengthy talk on how to encourage innovation and scientific achievement in the U.S. The event’s organizers hope that highlighting the winners’ contributions will inspire others. “I think what’s impressive about the prize winners today is the role models that they set for kids,” said Angela Belcher, a materials scientist at M.I.T. who spoke on a panel following the announcement. “These people are heroes in science. I think it’s a huge motivating factor.”

Editor's Note (5/31/12): This story was edited after posting. It originally incorrectly stated that all the winners of Kavli Prizes would split a total $1-million purse. In actuality there are three awards of $1 million each; if there are multiple winners of an award, they divide that category's $1-million prize.

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