2019 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists Ceremony Highlights

Tonight’s distinguished Master of Ceremonies, Professor of Computer Science, Information Science, and Linguistics, and the 14th President of Cornell University, Dr. Martha E. Pollack. Thank you all for being here tonight for this very exciting occasion. The 31 Finalists of the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards represent one of the most diverse arrays of scientists in the history of these honors. They hail from eleven different nations. They join what is now a community of 284 Blavatnik Scholars working in 35 different scientific disciplines and representing 45 different countries. And over the years there have been 90 women honored as Blavatnik Scholars, including nine tonight. More than 30 Blavatnik Award honorees have launched startup companies that are bringing their innovations to the public. Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present the Finalists for the 2019 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists. From among the list of 31 Finalists that we’ve just introduced to you, three Laureates have been chosen. One each in Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry. These three Blavatnik Laureates each will receive an award of $250,000 to utilize however they choose. I just love saying that, however they choose. (applauding) The 2019 Blavatnik National Awards Laureate in Life Sciences from Stony Brook University, Dr. Heather Lynch. I would like to provide a bit of context for how it is I got to this point using satellites and fieldwork, and a lot of math to try and track and conserve Antarctica’s iconic penguins. In their own way, penguins provide a tiny window into a vast and largely unknown world that lies beneath the water. And until we can find ways to track these very large, and very remote populations, we’ll never have a handle on how penguin populations are changing in response to threats like climate change and krill fishing. We discovered a series of very large, but largely unknown colonies in the Antarctic archipelago known as the Danger Islands. In response to our discovery of this massive and biologically important penguin hotspot, the proposed marine protected area for the Western Antarctic Peninsula was expanded by upwards of 3800 square miles, which is such a nice illustration that better technology can lead to better conservation. We’ve uncovered fascinating patterns in the shapes of penguin colonies that mimic patterns across biology, chemistry, and physics. And we’ve used drone imagery to dive in to the three dimensional structure of colonies and the landscapes they call home. And with that, I would like to thank the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and the New York Academy of Sciences for their support of science and young scientists like myself. (applauding) The 2019 Blavatnik National Awards Laureate in Physical Sciences & Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. Ana Maria Rey. It’s such a great honor for me to be here tonight. Today we use the atomic clock to make the most accurate measurements of time in the world. And in my research, I have worked to make atomic clocks even better. What I have done is to construct a mathematical model that can capture these fundamental physics of atomic collisions. And we can use this model to determine under what conditions we can cancel these detrimental effects of collisions in the clock. In fact the strontium clock is so accurate now that it never lose or gain a second in 15 billion years. What is that? It’s probably the age of the universe. And it has become the most precise object ever made by humankind. This is only the beginning. With this clock, we will be able to understand the missing connection between the quantum world and black holes. We can perhaps build the most precise sensors you have ever imagined, and hear the ripples of spacetime, and explore the deepest open secrets of the universe. (applauding) The 2019 Blavatnik National Awards Laureate in Chemistry from Harvard University, Dr. Emily Balskus. Good evening everyone. It’s an honor to be here tonight as this year’s Chemistry Laureate. Some of the most innovative chemists have never worn a lab coat. The chemists I’m referring to are microbes, invisible creatures like bacteria, archaea, and fungi. Their chemistry is all around us. In fact, one of the densest microbial communities on Earth lives within each of us. The trillions of organisms that inhabit the human gut. We are each colonized by a unique set of microbes. And we know that our gut microbiomes play critical roles in keeping us healthy. But we don’t yet know exactly how the gut microbiome affects host biology. The goal of my research is to decipher the chemistry of gut microbes, and its role in human health and disease. To do this, my lab studies enzymes, the protein-based catalysts that microbes and all living organisms use to perform chemical reactions. Over the last eight years, my lab has investigated many different types of gut microbial chemistry. We’ve studied how microbes consume nutrients derived from food and the human host. We’ve studied how they reduce the efficacy of drugs used to treat heart failure and Parkinson’s disease. And finally we’ve investigated how gut microbes make unique, complex molecules that damage our DNA and may lead to cancer. My dream is that someday, in addition to taking drugs that manipulate processes in human cells, you will also take medicines that have been specifically designed to treat your gut microbes. This is the future that could emerge when we start to think of ourselves not as individuals, but as ecosystems. (applauding) And as we close out a remarkable evening, there’s just one more thing to do, an annual tradition of the Blavatnik National Awards, a “Toast to Science.” Please raise your glasses to the passion, to the beauty, to the joy that brought us all together this evening, to science! Good night, everyone!

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