‘Science Oscars’ sees $25m split between 12 researchers

5 Dec 2016

Image: tomertu/Shutterstock

Another star-studded Breakthrough prize ceremony in the US has rewarded a dozen researchers for their discoveries in life sciences and physics.

Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are six names synonymous with technology; with Google, YouTube and Facebook three examples of their impact on the modern world.

However, their combined thirst for scientific discoveries is what brought them together for the Breakthrough prize, offering major financial rewards to researchers working at the cutting edge of modern science.


Big purse

With a total purse of $25m, the 2016 awards announced last weekend saw research into black holes, string theory, DNA modifications, rare diseases and Schrödinger’s equation, with 12 people being made a whole lot richer in the blink of an eye.

“There has never been a more important time to support science,” said Facebook founder Zuckerberg.

“The 2017 Breakthrough Prize laureates represent the leaders in scientific research in physics, math and life sciences. Their breakthroughs will unlock new possibilities and help make the world a better place for everyone.”

Five scientists in the life sciences field received $3m each, with Stephen J Elledge, Harry F Noller, Roeland Nusse, Yoshinori Ohsumi and Huda Yahya Zoghbi lauded for their investigations into protein synthesis in cells, Wnt pathways, nutrient generation, spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome.

Two teams of physicists were given separate prizes; one with $3m, the other with $1m, with the latter team seeing $2m shared between their 1,012 research colleagues.

Complete surprise

Further prizes went to junior researchers – two winning around $400,000 – and several smaller awards of $100,000.

Nusse, professor of developmental biology at Stanford University and investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was rewarded for his pioneering research on the Wnt pathway, one of the crucial intercellular signalling systems in development, cancer and stem cell biology.

“This is a complete surprise,” said Nusse. “My gratitude goes out to many people – my past and present postdoctoral scholars and graduate students and my former mentors have all contributed to the success of my research.”

Since its inception in 2012, the Breakthrough Prize has awarded close to $200m to honour paradigm-shifting research in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

Future looks bright

This year, two notable winners among the lauded researchers were female students who won the junior challenge: Antonella Masini, 18 (Peru) and Deanna See, 17 (Singapore), both of whom Chan was quick to highlight.

“The Breakthrough Junior Challenge encourages students to better understand the worlds of science and mathematics and to have some fun along the way,” said Chan.

“Antonella and Deanna both have bright futures in science and I am so excited to honour their work. They are also incredible storytellers, whose ability to capture these complex ideas in accessible and exciting ways is truly inspiring. I cannot wait to see how they will change the world.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic