2010 Vilcek Prize Finalists

Prize Recipients

2010 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Iannis Aifantis

By exploring Notch, an evolutionarily imprinted signaling pathway, Dr. Iannis Aifantis, Associate Professor at the Department of Pathology, NYU School of Medicine, has advanced the understanding of the “balance between physiological stem cell differential and malignant transformation,” work that could lead to the development of new, less invasive and dangerous treatments for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL), a deadly cancer that commonly strikes children.  Dr. Aifantis, who recently uncovered the passageway T cells travel to invade spinal fluid and the brain after they become malignant, is now testing potential drugs to block this entry point; he also hopes to learn what goes wrong in blood stem cells, causing them to become leukemic T cells. Going forward, Dr. Aifantis sees his research “gravitating toward the importance of ubiquitination [the ‘kiss of death’ for a protein],” which, he says, is targeted in several types of cancers.

Greek-born Dr. Aifantis credits his undergraduate studies as strongly influencing the future direction of his career in developmental immunology. After earning both his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Master of Science in Molecular Biology and Genetics from the University of Crete, he received a Marie Curie Fellowship and enrolled in the Necker Institute at University of Paris for his doctoral studies, under Dr. Harald von Boehmer. He later followed his mentor to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow, and subsequently established his own laboratory in the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago, before being recruited by NYU, in 2006. In 2009, Dr. Ailantis was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HMMI) Early Career Scientist. His other honors include: the American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award (2007), the Leukemia and Lymphoma Scholar Award (2008), the Dana Foundation Neuro-Immunology Award (2008), and the Irma T. Hirschl Career Scientist Award (2009).

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Rustem Ismagilov

Dr. Rustem Ismagilov’s research province is microfluidics, the flow of fluids through submillimeter channels⎯thinner than a human hair. His specialty in this multidisciplinary field, which emerged in the eighties, is to understand and control complex chemical and biological systems at critical times and locations. Now a professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics at the University of Chicago, Dr. Ismagilov has demonstrated how microfluidics can be used to simulate blood-clotting, a system with potential medical applications and that can help researchers better understand and control other biochemical reaction networks, such as the development of an organism from a single cell.  Dr. Ismagilov is using microfluidics to understand how spatial structure affects interactions of microbes and microbial communities of the human microbiome and the environment.  Dr Ismagilov is developing a “chemistrode,” a tool similar to an electrode as it delivers local stimuli and records biological response with high time resolution, but does it at the chemical rather than electrical level.  He is also expanding his effort in point of care diagnostics to impact global health.

Rustem Ismagilov was born in Ufa, Russia. He graduated from the Higher Chemical College of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, in 1994, before immigrating to the United States to complete his PhD in physical organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin−Madison in 1998.  He conducted his postdoctoral work at Harvard University, and began his independent research career in 2001, as an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, Department of Chemistry. Dr. Ismagilov’s list of awards is a long one: In 2004, he received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers; that same year Technology Review magazine named him one of the world’s 100 Top Young Innovators. He has also been honored with the NSF CAREER Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, the TR100 Young Innovator Award, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award,  the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, the Cozzarelli Prize from the National Academy of Sciences, the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, and the 2008 American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Vamsi Mootha

If there is such a thing as a science gene, then certainly Vamsi Mootha has it. His father and siblings (he is the youngest of four) are all physicians. As is he⎯he received his MD from Harvard Medical School. For a time, however, he was drawn powerfully by math and computer science, and earned his BS from Stanford University in mathematical and computational science. It was a biology course in his junior year that awakened Dr. Mootha’s love of genetics and biochemistry, and led to his enrollment in the MD program at Harvard/MIT. And it was seeing images of a patient with a rare mitochondrial disorder, in pathology class, that, as he puts it, got him “hooked on mitochondria,” organelles that have been proven to play a clear role in inborn errors of metabolism and, more recently, to be implicated in a variety of common human diseases. Today, as the primary investigator of the Mootha lab—dually located at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard—Dr. Mootha focuses his research on mitochondria, the energy producers for cells, calling on both his medical training and love of computational biology to learn more about their function in health and disease. His long-term goal is to develop predictive models of mitochondrial physiology, to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a broad range of human diseases, from rare monogenic syndromes to more common types, in particular type 2 diabetes mellitus. Currently, Dr. Mootha, in collaboration with biologists, computer scientists, and clinicians, is incorporating microscopy, mass spectrometry, and computation to identify all the component machinery of mitochondria. To date, they have catalogued some 1,100 proteins and mapped their evolutionary history, with the twofold purpose of determining protein function and identifying disease genes.

Vamsi Mootha was born in India and raised in Beaumont, Texas. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors from Stanford, received his MD in 1998, and completed his training in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His postdoctoral fellowship training was conducted at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research. Among his numerous awards, Dr. Mootha has received a Burroughs Wellcome Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, an HHMI Early Physician Scientist Award, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (commonly referred to as “genius award”), and the Judson Daland Prize of the American Philosophical Society. He is an Associate Professor of Systems Biology and Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital; he is also a senior Associate Member of the Broad Institute. The Mootha lab is currently supported by grants from the American Diabetes Association, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the Smith Family Foundation.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Jin Zhang

Dr. Jin Zhang, Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explores the dimensions of cellular space and time in her research to unravel the infinitely complex signaling pathways that are components of the remarkable machinery that regulates countless life processes. By observing cellular signaling molecules⎯especially, how malfunctions in such systems can contribute to disease⎯Dr. Zhang seeks to reveal the importance of precise spatiotemporal regulation in signaling, how cells control precisely where and when signaling occurs, and thus how a shift in this regulation could trigger a disease event. Essential to her work are tools capable of tracking signaling dynamics in living systems with single-cell resolution. Combining biochemical and biophysical approaches, Dr. Zhang and her colleagues have engineered fluorescent biosensors (devices that monitor and transmit information about life processes), to investigate the activities of second messengers, kinases, and phosphatases, and to track the regulation/dysregulation of several signaling pathways. These studies, she hopes, will one day lead to the development of more targeted, effective therapeutic treatments for the defects caused by such dysregulation.

Dr. Zhang faces many obstacles in her research, due to the intricate nature of the cell system; but, as she points out, the potential rewards are equally high. In 2009, she received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award, which supports such high-impact, high-risk research. She has also received the American Heart Association National Scientist Development Award and the Biophysical Society Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award. In addition to her position at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Zhang currently holds a joint appointment in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering. A native of Beijing, China, she completed her undergraduate studies at Tsinghua University, before moving to the United States to complete her graduate work in chemistry at the University of Chicago.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in The Arts

Michael Cheng

Historically, the food industry has been split between the culinary arts and food science, until only a decade ago when the Research Chefs Association (RCA) integrated the two into Culinology®, with the goal of blending the science of food production and preservation research with the culinary artistry of chefs, to help food manufacturers and restaurants offer consistently high-quality, flavorful, and visually appealing food to an increasingly demanding and discriminating eating public. A driving force behind this educational trend, which many believe to be the “future of food,” is Michael Cheng, Director and Associate Professor of Culinology and Hospitality Management at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). Mr. Cheng, who earned a bachelor’s in foodservice administration and a master’s in nutritional science and dietetics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, combined his educational acumen with his wide-ranging practical experience (from prep cook to food service manager) to establish the first Culinology baccalaureate degree program at his alma mater, in 2001. Today, ten universities in the United States offer RCA-approved Culinology degrees, with some 300 students enrolled nationwide. For this achievement, the RCA presented Mr. Cheng with its President’s Award in 2002. In 2006, the association honored him with a second President’s Award, in recognition of his continued innovation, dedication, leadership, and contributions to the food industry.

While deeply involved in the food industry in the United States (he serves on numerous boards and is a sought-after speaker), Michael Cheng maintains close ties to his native Malaysia. In 2008, he was instrumental in developing a Culinology curriculum at Kolej Damansara Utama College, in Petaling Jaya, which led to the first international articulation agreement allowing Malaysian students to transfer their credits to SMSU in order to complete their BS degrees in Culinology.  He is a Certified Hospitality Educator of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and a Certified ServSafe Instructor and Registered Proctor; he has developed and taught a broad variety of courses in the culinary arts, food sciences, and hospitality management. He is currently at work on his PhD at Iowa State University; for his dissertation, he will evaluate the core competencies in the Bachelor of Science in Culinology program.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in The Arts

Yoshinori Ishii

“Treasure every meal, for it will never recur,” describes the spirit behind every dish chef-artist Yoshinori Ishii prepares and serves. Inspired by the centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony, Chef Ishii’s holistic approach to his culinary creations is a tribute to his Japanese roots and training. Of his first workplace, Kyoto Kicho, where he spent nine years, he recalls, “The life there was like that of the ascetic monk. Cleaning and preparing for the day was as important as cooking itself.” At Kyoto Kicho, he also learned calligraphy and flower arranging, how to work with the soil and appreciate nature, all as essential to the restaurant’s Cha-Kaiseki specialty cuisine (served during the full-length, formal tea ceremony) as the food itself. The importance to Chef Ishii of incorporating these arts, along with ceramics and porcelain painting, remain evident in his dishes today⎯as is his commitment to use choice, local, fresh, and organic products. At the acclaimed Morimoto Restaurant in New York , where he has been the Omakase (“chef’s choice”) chef since 2006, guests sometimes have the privilege of being served fish Chef Ishii has caught himself, on pottery he has made himself (his fishing rods, he says, are as important to him as his kitchen knives). 

Yoshinori Ishii studied at the renowned Osaka Abeno Tsuji Cooking School, then studied organic farming in Kyoto while he worked at the main restaurant at Kyoto Kitcho. Nine years later, he became the head chef at the Japanese Embassy for the United Nations, first in Geneva, then in New York. Chef Ishii was the recipient of the Rising Star Chef Award in 2008. His dream is to one day open a “small enough restaurant where I can pay great attention to my guests.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in The Arts

Nandini Mukherjee

It didn’t, as Nandini Mukherjee has said, take a genius to recognize there was market in New York City for good, reasonably priced Indian food; but it did take someone with creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit to capitalize on it and, in short order, turn it into a highly successful café and catering business. Lack of a business background (she has a bachelor’s in architecture and a master’s in lighting design) barely slowed down Ms. Mukherjee once she decided to open a “bright, cheerful café,” where New Yorkers of all-size wallets could indulge both their love of Indian cuisine and their penchant for “portable” food. Almost as soon as the aromas of fresh-baked bread, coriander, onions, and tandoor-cooked meats began wafting onto Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, in 2003, the Indian Bread Co. was attracting crowds—and rave reviews, from the likes of Zagat, TimeOut New York, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and many others. The restaurant’s services were soon expanded to include catering. Ms. Mukherjee’s business acumen grew apace with the popularity of the Indian Bread Co.: night classes in restaurant management were supplemented by coursework at the French Culinary Institute, the Institute of Culinary Education, the Women’s Venture Fund, and the Small Business Development Center at Pace University. More recently, it was the same entrepreneurial spirit, now backed by market savvy, that enabled Ms. Mukherjee to deftly navigate the stormy economic waters, which, in 2008, swamped many other eateries across the country. With business slowing and sales falling at the restaurant, Ms. Mukherjee wisely decided to regroup and rebrand; in 2009, with a revamped kitchen and new menus, she reopened as Aamchi Pao (“my bread”), with a focus on Mumbai street food. New customers and old soon found their way to Aamchi Pao, and revenues were again on the upswing. (She still operates The Indian Bread Co. as a catering firm only, with such high-profile clients as the Tribeca Film Festival and New York Fashion Week). 

Nandini Mukherjee is the recipient of a Make Mine a Million $ Business award package from Count Me In, and the National Association of Women Business Owners Promise Award. She has been invited to lecture on entrepreneurship by the Columbia University Business School and the Johnson School of Business at Cornell University. Ms. Mukherjee grew up in Jamshedpur, India, earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Institute of Environmental Design and her master of arts in lighting design from Parsons School of Design.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in The Arts

Boris Portnoy

Boris Portnoy has always known he wanted to cook, and as a youth took his earliest inspiration from culinary cookbooks, whose recipes he attempted to reproduce. His actual training began in the kitchen at Deux Cheminees in Philadelphia, under Chef Fritz Blanc. Here, along with training in traditional French cuisine, Chef Blanc, a former microbiologist, exposed Mr. Portnoy to something more valuable: the chemistry of food. He also sparked the budding chef’s creativity, motivating him to question everything about food and to work for experience⎯lessons Mr. Portnoy has never forgotten. He found his next source of inspiration in Vernon Morales, with whom he opened Restaurant Salt in Philadelphia, after leaving Deux Cheminees. Chef Morales encouraged Mr. Portnoy to go to Spain, to expand his repertoire of creative cuisine. There, under renowned Chef Andoni Anduliz at Restaurant Mugaritz, he learned about the application of modern techniques and, more importantly, the range of taste. Back in the States, and now focused on learning pastry technique, Mr. Portnoy became opening pastry chef at New York City’s critically acclaimed Cru, led by Chef Shea Gallante. But when the opportunity to reunite with Chef Morales presented itself, in 2005, Mr. Portnoy moved cross country to join him at Winterland Restaurant in San Francisco. That same year he was named a Rising Star Pastry Chef by StarChefs. A year later, Mr. Portnoy became pastry chef at Campton Place in San Francisco, where his innovative pastry concepts and flavor combinations began to take shape and earn acclaim (in 2006, he was named Best Pastry Chef by Northside Magazine).  His pastry “philosophy” is to use ingredients with a common denominator; he also is intent on making food that is complex and exciting⎯even if it means he has to educate his customers. Among his favorite ingredients are astringents such as tea, coffee, or chicory.

Since 2008, Mr. Portnoy has been working as a freelance pastry chef. In that capacity, he has teamed with mixologist Daniel Hyatt to establish SucrePunch, a collaborative project to contribute to the dessert and cocktail culture. More recently, he has been working with Iso Rabin of ForageSF to set up a network of foragers, gleaners, and others who want to eat wild foraged foods. He also cooks at the organization’s Wild Kitchen, to introduce diners with different wild ingredients. Mr. Portnoy was born in Moscow, and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was 12. He studied at New School University in New York City before launching his career in the culinary arts.

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