2011 Vilcek Prize Finalists

Prize Recipients

2011 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Katherine Fitzgerald, Ph.D.

Katherine Fitzgerald never doubted that a career in science was her future. With her destination clearly in view from a young age, she began to pave the path to reach it, studying physics, chemistry, and biology while still in high school. After receiving her BSc from University College Cork, Ireland, she continued her graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. While working on her PhD, she became fascinated by an exciting field of research opened by the discovery of Dropsophila Toll and the mammalian Toll-like receptors “as receptors for microbial products.” Her dissertation completed, she initiated studies in innate immunity, focusing on how the immune system senses the presence of pathogens. As a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry at Trinity College, Dublin, she uncovered a new adapter molecule and new immune surveillance receptors, and was subsequently awarded a Wellcome Trust International Research Fellowship.

She left her small scientific community in her native Ireland to become part of “the collective mass of scientific research going on in the Boston area,” where the possibilities seemed endless to her. She decided Doug Golenbock’s lab in the Division of Infectious Disease at the University of Massachusetts Medical School was the place to be, and arrived in the United States one day before 9/11.

Three years later, she became a member of the faculty at UMASS, where she is currently Associate Professor of Medicine. The current efforts of her laboratory are focused primarily on four areas of innate immunity: the molecular basis of pathogen recognition; innate immunity to malaria; Type I interferon gene regulation; and counter regulation of innate immune recognition. Dr. Fitzgerald has published widely in top-tier scientific journals, among them Nature, Nature Immunology, and Immunity, and is an active author reviewer, as well. Most rewarding to her, however, she says, is “the effect one can have on inspiring the next generation of young scientists.”  

Photo credit: Nancy Carbonara

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Ekaterina Heldwein, Ph.D.

How do herpesviruses enter cells? Ekaterina Heldwein uses X-ray crystallography to answer that question in atomic-level detail, with the goal of developing antiviral drugs and vaccines to combat these persistent viruses. But even working at that level of detail, she never loses sight of the “big picture” and never disregards surprising results, a perspective contrary to what she’d experienced as an undergraduate researcher at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Back then, while assaying the kinetics of an enzyme, she found unexpected results, but was instructed by her advisor to ignore anything “inconsistent with the accepted models.” When those results later proved correct, she realized that her scientific future lay outside the “rigid academic atmosphere of Russia.” She had seen firsthand that such outcomes could lead to “paradigm-shifting breakthroughs” and wanted to work in an atmosphere where the unexpected was appreciated and its pursuit encouraged.

After receiving her Chemistry degree, her longtime dream to live abroad came true when she was accepted at Oregon Health and Sciences University, Portland, for her doctoral studies. Her first major discovery as a graduate student was the structure of a bacterial multidrug-binding transcription factor BmrR, offering the first view of a multidrug-binding protein. Later, her interest was piqued by the ancient and complex pathogens collectively referred to as herpesviruses. Surprised to learn that little was known about what herpesvirus entry proteins were actually doing  in spite of many years of research  she took on the challenge of finding out, beginning by determining what these proteins look like. She continues that work today at the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, where she is an Assistant Professor. She hopes some day to be able to make a “molecular movie” illustrating, in atomic-level detail, exactly how herpesviruses enter cells.

In 2008, Dr. Heldwein was presented with the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) ICAAC Young Investigator Award; in 2010, she received the ASM Merck Irving S. Sigal Award, named in memory of Irving S. Sigal, who was instrumental in the early discovery of therapies to treat HIV/AIDS; and in 2007, she was named a Pew Scholar and awarded the prestigious NIH Director's New Innovator Award.

Photo credit: Naomi Rosenberg (TUSM)

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Galit Lahav, Ph.D.

No interdisciplinary programs were available when Galit Lahav began her graduate studies, forcing her to choose between her multiple scientific passions: biology, math, physics, and computer science. Biology won out - at least on the face of it. She enrolled in the Biology program at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology), but continued to take courses in math and physics, all the while yearning to be able to “integrate the two parts of my head.”

Resolution finally came, Dr. Lahav says, when, after earning her PhD in Biology, she joined Uri Alon’s Systems Biology lab at the Weizmann Institute for her postdoctoral training. There she was given “complete freedom to independently develop my own research direction.” She chose the dynamics and function of the tumor suppressor protein p53, which plays a key role in cancer and is widely studied. Unlike other studies on p53, however, which target cell populations that average many cells together, Dr. Lahav developed a new approach, quantifying p53 at high temporal resolution in single cells and taking into account that “individual cell decisions are crucial in the development and treatment of cancer.” Her approach has already revealed new and valuable insights into the behavior and regulation of this important gene.

Six months into Dr. Lahav’s second postdoc, at Harvard’s Bauer Center for Genomics Research, the Systems Biology department at Harvard Medical School was formed and she was asked to apply for a faculty position there. She is there today, an Associate Professor, and her lab is a reflection of all she believes a scientific environment should be - “collaborative, stimulating, educational and interdisciplinary.” Her goals are to continue working to understand how the dynamics of p53 and other signaling pathways important in cancer control cell fate decisions. Dr. Lahav is also a dedicated mentor to new faculty and committed to furthering the advancement of women in science.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Elina Zuniga, Ph.D.

The human immune system is highly evolved to protect us from illness, yet it still falls prey to a wide variety of infectious diseases, among them the leading causes of death and disability around the world. On the front lines against that army of pathogens is Dr. Elina Zuniga, who focuses her research on the strategies used by viruses to establish chronic infections. Her objective is to mobilize the immune system to eradicate them, by uncovering the strategies they use to establish chronic infections. She and her colleagues study the cellular and molecular aspects of the innate and adaptive immune responses (the two arms of the immune system), and more specifically, dendritic cells, a specialized subset of leukocytes that coordinate them.

In this effort, Dr. Zuniga made a major “hit” while a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Research Institute, when she initiated study into plasmacytoid dendritic cells, a subset of leukocytes that produce large quantities of the antiviral mediators type I interferons, and have significant developmental potential. Her innovative approaches in this field continue to reveal exciting new insights into how to fight chronic viral infections and associated opportunistic pathogens. Dr. Zuniga believes that “this knowledge can be harnessed to empower the immune system’s fight against persistent viruses, thereby improving the duration and quality of life for millions of people worldwide.”

A native of Argentina, Dr. Zuniga earned her PhD in Biochemistry from the National University of Cordoba. She accepted a postdoctoral position at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, made possible by the award of two fellowships. Currently an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of California San Diego, Dr. Zuniga remains strongly connected to her roots, which she says often help her “perceive reality in different ways” and encourage her to “seek worldwide benefits in scientific endeavors.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature

Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky has been called ”a poet of promise fulfilled”; his talent, “rare and beautiful”; his poems “stunning.” He has won the Whiting Writers’ Award; the Milton Center’s Award for Excellence in Writing; the Florence Kahn Memorial Award; Poetry magazine’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship; Philips Exeter Academy’s George Bennett Fellowship; and a Lannan Foundation fellowship. His first book of poems, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), won the Dorset Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, and ForeWord Magazine’s Best Poetry Book of the Year award.

Public acclaim notwithstanding, poetry remains, for him, a private affair. “Only after you get private with yourself”, he has said, can you truly start writing. Silence, too, is a powerful stimulus for him, if only to speak out against it. Deaf since the age of four, he knows its power. In Dancing in Odessa, he seeks “to honor and give voice to the Russian poetic past.”

Mr. Kaminsky began writing as a child in that city of his memory. When life in Ukraine became too risky for Jews, his father applied for asylum to the United States. Granted in 1993, the family settled in Rochester, New York. A year later, upon the death of his father, he began to write his first poems in English. In addition to Dancing In Odessa, he has published Musica Humana (Chapiteau Press, 2002); co-edited the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (2010); and edited and co-translated Polina Barskova’s This Lamentable City (2010). His second book of poetry, Deaf Republic, is nearing completion; excerpts from it have won Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize.

Mr. Kaminsky earned his BA in political science from Georgetown University and his JD from the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He co-founded Poets for Peace, and has worked for the National Immigration Law Center and Bay Area Legal Aid. He lives with his wife in San Diego, where he teaches in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at San Diego State University.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature

Téa Obreht

Raised with a “rich oral tradition of cultural and familial folklore,” among “voracious readers and proficient storytellers,” Téa Obreht knew at eight years old that she intended to carry on that vital tradition. Fortified by “unconditional support” and worldwide travel, language studies, and cultural immersion, Ms. Obreht early had a wealth of resources from which to craft the kinds of stories she wanted to tell.

Ms. Obreht’s imagination has also been fired by the conditions and conflicts of her birthplace, Belgrade, although that realization took some time to come. She left her homeland when she was seven, in 1992, just as hostilities in the Balkan were erupting, her mother having found work in Cyprus. It would be ten years before she returned, via a circuitous route that took her and her family from Cyprus to Cairo, next to Atlanta, Georgia, then to California, where she became a naturalized U.S. citizen, in 2003. It was also in California where her first stories began to take shape as she pursued her BA in creative writing at the University of Southern California. A short story written there gained her acceptance to the MFA program at Cornell University. In 2008, she was awarded an Individual Artist Grant by the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the first draft of what was to become The Tiger’s Wife, the novel that would propel her into the public eye.

On the strength of an excerpt from the still-unfinished novel published in The New Yorker, Ms. Obreht was named to the magazine’s 2010 “Top 20 Under 40” list, the youngest so honored. Ms. Obreht’s work also has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, The New York Times, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading. Ms. Obreht received her MFA in Fiction in 2009; she lives in Ithaca, New York.

Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature

Vu Tran

Vu Tran was always reading as a child-”in the bedroom, at the dining table, in my mom’s car, in front of the TV,” he says. Reader soon became writer. In fifth grade, he wrote his first story, and learned that storytelling not only entertains, but also “allows you to define yourself.” Not, however, until he began to visit his native Vietnam, in his early twenties, did his work begin to “blossom.” He came to understand why, though he had grown up happy (in Tulsa, Oklahoma), he had always felt ”displaced.”

Mr. Tran, his sister, and mother fled Vietnam in 1980, crammed with almost two hundred others in a fishing boat three meters long. After seven months in a Malaysian refugee camp, Mr. Tran met his father for the first time in America; he was five years old. The elder Tran, an officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force, had escaped alone when Saigon fell, his wife pregnant with their son.

In claiming his heritage and exploring that world in his fiction, Mr. Tran says, “I found I was educating myself about myself.” After receiving his BA and MA from the University of Tulsa, he entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to earn his MFA. He completed his PhD as a Glenn Schaeffer Fellow at the University of Nevada. Throughout these years, he worked on short story collections, set primarily in Vietnam and revolving around themes of conflict, family, religion, and history.

Mr. Tran’s stories have appeared in the Harvard Review, Southern Review, Glimmer Train, Antioch Review, 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Mystery Stories 2009, and others. He is now at work on his first novel, This Or Any Desert, (forthcoming from W.W. Norton). He received a 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, the 2004 Lawrence Foundation Prize from the Michigan Quarterly Review, and the 2003 Short-Story Award for New Writers from Glimmer Train Stories. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Photo credit: Aaron Mayes

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature

Simon Van Booy

A dozen or so years ago, while living in a cottage in the woods with limited electricity and no heat, Simon Van Booy arrived with certainty at the realization that he wanted to be a writer - that writing was what he was most capable of doing. “Stories,” he believes, “are crucial - because they help people understand what has happened to them.” But writing and earning a living writing are two very different pursuits, and it would be almost a decade before he achieved the latter. During those years, he took jobs that gave him “the space to write” while “reading and writing with great voracity.” That period he remembers fondly, and with gratitude: “Without the devotion to craft I developed then, I probably wouldn’t have been disciplined enough to continue writing.”

Born in London and raised in rural Wales, Mr. Van Booy moved to New York City via Athens. Having long been drawn to the social and creative energy of the city, it would become home, and the place where he would find success as a writer. He has published two short story collections, The Secret Lives of People in Love (Turtle Point Press, 2007) and Love Begins in Winter (Harper Perennial, 2009), which won the  Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is the editor of three philosophy books, and contributes essays to The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and NPR. His first novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, is due from Harper Perennial in July 2011. His work has been translated into 11 different languages. Mr. Van Booy is also a passionate teacher and mentor, especially to other immigrants, and dreams of opening a rural literacy-nature center for children and adults. His future plans also include more philosophy books, a children’s book series, and film adaptations.

Photo credit: Ken Browar

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