$22m awarded to academic rockstars at the ‘Oscars of science’

4 Dec 2017

Image: Vinaya K/Shutterstock

For the sixth year running, millions of dollars have been awarded to some of the world’s leading scientists as part of the ‘Oscars for science’.

Backed by sci-tech billionaires including Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, the Breakthrough Prize brings together two seemingly contrasting worlds: Hollywood and academia.

Now in its sixth year, the Breakthrough Prize has given close to $200m to fund research in the fields of physics, life sciences and mathematics. This year’s gala was hosted by Morgan Freeman, with awards presented by some other famous faces.

This year alone, the awards totalled $22m with seven $3m prizes awarded as well as another $1m fund presented to a slew of early-career researchers in these fields.

The winners of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences were named as Joanne Chory (Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute), Don W Cleveland (Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at University of California, San Diego), Kazutoshi Mori (Kyoto University), Kim Nasmyth (University of Oxford) and Peter Walter (University of California, San Francisco).

Each received $3m to fund their research, which included Chory’s discovery of the molecular mechanisms of photosynthetic harvesting of light, and Cleveland’s establishing of antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Huntington’s disease.

Awards for physics and maths

Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics saw the entire 27-member team of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe jointly receive the prize of $3m.

The team’s research has led to the creation of detailed maps of the early universe, which greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.

The final major award – the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics – saw Christopher Hacon (University of Utah) and James McKernan (University of California, San Diego) jointly awarded $3m for their transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions.

Major success for budding scientist

One of the most eye-catching successes of the night was 18-year-old Filipino Hillary Diane Andales, who was named as the winner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global science video competition designed to inspire creative thinking about fundamental concepts in life sciences, physics and mathematics.

Her winning submissions earned her $400,000 in educational prizes, including a scholarship worth up to $250,000, $50,000 for the science teacher who inspired her and a state-of-the-art science lab valued at $100,000.

In her second year entering the competition, Andales’ video focused on reference frames in general relativity. This followed on from her 2013 success when her video won her a DNA molecular biology laboratory as her school recovered from damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan.

“The world needs their inspiration and their reminder that, even though it doesn’t always feel that way, we are making steady progress toward building a better future for everyone,” said Zuckerberg, Breakthrough Prize co-founder and Facebook founder.

“Priscilla [Chan] and I want to congratulate all of tonight’s laureates and give our deepest thanks for all that they do.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic