2011 Vilcek Prize Recipients
The Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science
Titia de Lange, Ph.D.
Titia de Lange, the Leon Hess Professor and head of the laboratory for Cell Biology at Rockefeller University, describes herself as a puzzler, someone who “lives the question,” rather than focusing on the solution. “If you’re a puzzler,” she says, “and you’re only interested in the complete picture, look at the cover of the box. The satisfaction in being a scientist is enjoying each step along the way, searching for the next piece.”
The puzzle Dr. de Lange has been working on since the late eighties is the telomere. Telomeres are highly specialized DNA-protein structures that cap the ends of linear chromosomes, protecting from degradation and maintaining chromosome stability. Impaired functioning of telomeres can lead to genomic instability, and so to cancer, as well as accelerate the aging process. In her research, focused on exactly how telomeres provide this protection, Dr. de Lange has uncovered several important pieces of the puzzle. Early in her studies, while still a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Harold Varmus at the University of California-San Francisco, she was one of the first to isolate the telomeres of human chromosomes. Since then, she has identified a protein complex at telomeres, which she named shelterin, and demonstrated its role in suppressing DNA damage response and regulating telomere stability.
Dr. de Lange’s work on this crucial component of human chromosome health has garnered her wide acclaim and numerous awards, but it’s evident her deepest gratification comes from her engagement with the scientific process, which she describes as “meditative.” “It’s a separate universe I can live in,” she explains, “where the daily burdens, doubts, and suffering of the world are gone.” She has always known she could find happiness in a life in science, but had doubts it would come to pass; for although Dr. de Lange comes from a family of scientists and doctors, in Amsterdam, she was not encouraged to pursue her studies. “At the time,” she recalls, “women were expected to be homemakers; at best women pursued professions as a hobby.”
But she persevered, earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Cancer Institute, in 1985; she moved to the United States immediately thereafter. It was at UCSF during her postdoctoral fellowship, from 1985 to 1990, that she realized she could succeed. She found the atmosphere there inspirational: “They asked questions in a new way. And there were women there, who were highly regarded, and ran their own labs.”
Dr. de Lange joined the Rockefeller faculty in 1990, and was named the Leon Hess Professor in 1999; she is also Associate Director of the University’s Anderson Center for Cancer Research and an American Cancer Society Research Professor. Among her arm-long list of awards are the 2010 AACR Clowes Memorial Award, the 2008 Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center Prize, the 2005 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, the 2004 Charlotte Friend Memorial Award from the AACR, and the first Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research, in 2001. She is an elected member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, the European Molecular Biology Organization, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
The Vilcek Prize in Literature
Charles Simic’s poetry has been called “strikingly original,” “grimly realistic,” “metaphysical,” “ironically humorous,” “meditative,” and, most often, “surreal.” He began to write poetry while still in high school, and always in English, which he had learned to speak at fifteen, after leaving Belgrade and arriving in the States, by way of Paris. Just five years later, in 1959, he had published his first poems in an issue of the Chicago Review. His college education was hard won, at night, paid for by the various odd jobs he took during the day, first in Chicago and later in New York City, and interrupted by a two-year stint in the military. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Russian, in 1966, from New York University, almost as a matter of form, for the influences and inspirations for his poems were already well established - his childhood experiences; his passion for art, poetry, jazz, and film; and his keen eye for observation. Within a year after graduation, his first collection, What the Grass Says, was published.
Mr. Simic has kept up an astounding pace in the ensuing years. A very short list of his twenty books of poetry includes The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (1990), which won the Pulitzer Prize; Walking the Black Cat (1996), a National Book Award finalist; Jackstraws (1999), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; and Selected Poems: 1963–2003 (2004), which won the 2005 International Griffin Poetry Prize. He has been equally productive as a translator, editor and essayist, and his body of work has been acknowledged by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2007, the same year he won the Wallace Stevens Award, Mr. Simic was appointed the fifteenth Poet Laureate of the United States. And earlier this year he joined the company of Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore as a recipient of the prestigious Robert Frost Medal, presented by the Poetry Society of America to honor “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.”
In addition to his writing, Mr. Simic remains active as a teacher. Since 1973, he has taught English and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire, where he is today Emeritus Professor; and as a Distinguished Poet-in-Residence, he teaches every fall semester at New York University.
The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science
Yibin Kang, Ph.D.
One revolution inadvertently inspired Yibin Kang to a life in science; a second pointed to his future in biomedical research. Dr. Kang’s father, forced during China’s Cultural Revolution to abandon his career as a marine biologist, passed on his passion for science to his son. Several years later, the genomic revolution gave the new PhD graduate the opportunity “to address the difficult questions in cancer biology.”
The transformation of this self-described shy boy from a small town in rural China to Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University and Member of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey is bracketed between those two vastly different circumstances. Born in 1973 in Fujian Province, Dr. Kang’s scientific skills were apparent early. As a student of the Experimental Science Class in Peking University High School, he won the top prizes in the National Chemistry Competition. But chemistry gave way to genetics when, as an undergraduate at Fudan University in Shanghai, Dr. Kang recalls first being “fascinated by the potential … power of genetics to tackle human diseases.”
His research direction chosen, in 1995 Dr. Kang turned toward the West for his graduate studies. Enrolling first at Michigan State University, he transferred a year later to Duke University, where he worked in the laboratory of renowned virologist Dr. Bryan Cullen. As the only graduate student in the group, Dr. Kang proved early he could hold his own among his colleagues, all highly successful postdocs. Dr. Kang completed his graduate studies in less than four years, and as part of his thesis work solved an important problem in virology relating to the export of viral genomic RNA. His success in studying virus-host interactions inspired him to tackle an even more difficult question: How do tumor cells turn against their hosts and eventually kill the cancer patients.
It was now 2000, and the genomic revolution was underway. Dr. Kang joined the lab of Dr. Joan Massagué at the Sloan-Kettering Institute. Dr. Massagué gave his ambitious new colleague free rein to pursue the molecular mechanism of cancer metastasis even though no research of this sort had ever been attempted in his lab, and Dr. Kang had limited background in cancer research and no experience in genomics. It was faith well placed, for Dr. Kang in short order devised a functional genomic strategy for identifying and analyzing breast cancer metastasis genes, a major breakthrough in the field.
In 2004, Dr. Kang was invited to join the faculty at Princeton. Considered by some a bold move, because the university had no medical school, Dr. Kang saw it as an “ideal opportunity,” believing he could “make a difference and contribute to the lofty goal of conquering cancer through innovative research and teaching in cancer biology.”
The difference he is making can be read in the more than fifty original articles he has published in leading journals such as Cell, Cancer Cell, and Nature Medicine. Dr. Kang’s research has provided novel insights into the mysterious process of cancer metastasis, and identified several key molecules that allow tumor cells to negotiate their way from the primary lesion to distant organs such as bone and lung. His contributions may be counted, in part, in the numerous prestigious awards he has won, among them an AIMM-ASBMR John Haddad Young Investigator Award, an American Cancer Society Scholar Award, and a Department of Defense Era of Hope Scholar Award. In 2008, Dr. Kang was elected to the Board of Directors of the Metastasis Research Society; in 2009, the Champalimaud Foundation named him one of three leading metastasis researchers; and in 2010, he received the inaugural Oudang Distinguished Lectureship Award of the Korean Pharmaceutical Society.
The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature
“Literature,” says Dinaw Mengestu, “has always provided me with a space to feel both intellectually and emotionally alive.” In his own fiction, he extends an invitation to his readers to do the same, “to enter personal and physical landscapes that while perhaps wholly imagined, nonetheless have a vitality and truth to them.” He raises questions of identity, and in answering them, sets his characters on personal journeys through memory and of discovery.
A reflection of his own past and experiences, many of Mr. Mengestu’s characters are immigrants or the children of immigrants, often from Africa, as he is; and so an underlying theme is what it means to be American. The narrator in his most recent novel, How to Read the Air, overhears a colleague say about him: “He’s completely American…but you wouldn’t necessarily guess that from just looking at him.” Indeed, the character, Jonas Woldermarian, was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois. By making Jonas undeniably American yet somehow “other,” Mr. Mengestu reminds us that we all carry our pasts with us. For immigrants, it may be more apparent: they bear the burden of looking foreign, sounding foreign. But who has not felt the acute sting of otherness, at work, in social situations, sometimes even among one’s own family? Which is why Mr. Mengestu’s books resist categorization as “immigrant literature”; they are, simply, great literature.
Mr. Mengestu wants to build “narrative bridges” in his work, “between seemingly disparate parts of the world and the borders, both real and imagined, that divide them.” At work now on his third novel, he intends it reach across four decades and three continents, to reveal “that regardless of where we live and where we come from, we seek, hope, live, and die along the same thin lines.”
In addition to writing fiction, Mr. Mengestu is a journalist, with a special interest in the conflicts in Africa. He has traveled to Darfur, northern Uganda, and South Sudan to learn firsthand and in depth about these stories, in order to report on them as fully and accurately as possible, for such publications such as Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Jane Magazine, and Granta Magazine. This knowledge also serves to inform the storylines of his fiction, to flesh out their political and historical contexts.
Mr. Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At two and a half years old, he met his father for the first time, after he, his mother, and sister were finally granted asylum to join him in Peoria, Illinois, where he had settled after fleeing Ethiopia during the communist revolution there. Mr. Mengestu graduated from Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA Program in Fiction. He has been honored with a Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship; and The New Yorker named him a “ 20 Under 40” writer to watch. His first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, won the “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, the Guardian First Book award, and the Los Angeles Times first novel award, and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His second novel, How to Read the Air, released in October 2010, has already been named a New York Times Notable Book.
Photo credit: David Burnett