2012 Vilcek Prize Finalists

Prize Recipients

2012 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Konrad Hochedlinger, Ph.D.

Austrian-born Konrad Hochedlinger can trace a direct line from the seminal cloning experiments of the sixties to his current position as Associate Professor at Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute, Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. Those early experiments, conducted by John Gurdon, led to his decision to attend the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology, in Vienna, for graduate work. While there, he attended a lecture given by Rudolf Jaenisch, who proposed to use animal cloning. Fascinated by this concept, he applied, successfully, to join Dr. Jaenisch’s lab as a Visiting Graduate Student at the Whitehead Institute/MIT. In his six years there, Dr. Hochedlinger says, he “learned how to think scientifically and ask fundamental questions in stem cell biology.” He also succeeded in generating cloned mice, from fully specialized immune cells.

At his independent lab today, Dr. Hochedlinger works to understand the “elusive mechanisms of cellular reprogramming.”  His ultimate goal is to utilize this information for the generation of patient-specific stem cells in drug discovery efforts and for the treatment of degenerative diseases.  In addition to his research activities, he enjoys teaching courses at both Harvard and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He does not shy away from addressing the often-controversial scientific, ethical, and legal issues surrounding stem cell research, and welcomes the opportunity to speak with lay audiences on these topics. Dr. Hochedlinger earned his PhD in Mammalian Development from the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Andreas Hochwagen, Ph.D.

Until he was a senior in high school, Austrian native Andreas Hochwagen fully intended to be either a reporter or comic artist. It is thanks to his inspiring teachers and colleagues, he says, that he now finds science to be his “satisfying creative outlet.” The first in his family to earn an academic degree, Dr. Andreas studied biochemistry as an undergraduate. He went on to earn his masters in chemistry from the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, where he discovered that he “had a knack for finding experimental alternatives to make things work.” At IMP he produced, in vitro, the first pure cohesion proteins (rings that link duplicated chromosomes prior to cell division). For his postgraduate studies, Dr. Hochwagen joined the lab of Angelika Amon at MIT, where the focus was on meiosis, the cell division that produces sperm and egg cells. His independent research at the lab earned him a nomination for the Whitehead Fellow program and, most recently, an Assistant Professor appointment in the Department of Biology at New York University.

Ultimately, Dr. Hochwagen hopes to “define the blueprint of chromosome architecture and predict chromosome behavior during normal meiosis and disease.” When not in the lab, he often can be found encouraging lay audiences and young students to get involved in science, believing that although “many people are fascinated with the processes of nature, it can be difficult to experience scientific research firsthand.” To that end, he participates in outreach programs for underprivileged high school students and teachers, and hosts undergraduate summer students.

Photo by Suzan Runko

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Songhai Shi, Ph.D.

Songhai Shi has traveled far from his small village in eastern China to fulfill his “long-cherished dream” to become a scientist. The first critical step on that journey was acceptance to the Biological Sciences and Biotechnology Department at Tsinghua University, in Beijing (the Chinese equivalent of MIT or Caltech). After graduating, with excellence, Dr. Shi came to the United States, to pursue his graduate studies at the joint PhD program in Genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) and State University of New York-Stony Brook. Though his knowledge of neuroscience at the time was rudimentary (his background was in Plant Genetics), his innovative approaches to research marked him as a rising star. For his creative work at CSHL, which resolved a longstanding debate over the plasticity of the neuronal network, he received the Amersham Biosciences and Science Grand Prize for Young Scientists.

With his PhD and a Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship in hand, Dr. Shi moved on to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in San Francisco, to study mammalian brain development. He succeeded there in resolving a phenomenon little understood since its discovery over a century ago: signaling events underlying the polarization of mammalian neurons with a single axon. In 2006, Dr. Shi came East to join the Development Biology Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, where he is an Associate Member. His studies are directed toward advancing the understanding of functional neocortex construction, and providing new insights into many devastating brain disorders, with the hope of facilitating development of new treatments.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Benjamin tenOever, Ph.D.

It was a book, The Invisible Invaders, by Peter Radetsky, that sparked Benjamin tenOever’s “passion for science, and especially for viruses.” With the goal of becoming one of the scientists described in it who pursue these agents of infectious disease, he began taking microbiology electives, and soon thereafter, designing and conducting an independent honors project, sampling local mice for strains of the hantavirus. Born to Dutch parents in a small rural town in Southern Ontario, Dr. tenOever completed his doctorate at McGill University, in Montreal, before immigrating to the United States to conduct postdoc research in molecular biology at Harvard, in the lab of Tom Maniatis”infamous” as the source of the Molecular Cloning Handbook. His work with, and mentoring by, Dr. Maniatis, coupled with the intensely hands-on training he received at McGill, well prepared Dr. tenOever to make the move to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York“arguably,” he says, “the greatest city in the world.”

As Associate Professor, he maintains an open-door policy, for he places great value on watching his graduate students and postdoc fellows “advance and become significant contributors in their fields.” His current research focuses on the molecular interactions between viruses and their hosts; and he names as his greatest future objective the development of a virus-based therapeutic. A 2008 Pew Scholar, Dr. tenOever has also received the 2009 Presidential Award in Science and Engineering, the 2010 American Society of Microbiology’s Young Investigator Award, and, most recently, was named a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Diseases.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Dance

Fanny Ara

The River Ara, from which her family name derives, is a symbol for flamenco dancer/choreographer Fanny Ara. “Like a river,” she says, “my life is a journey without limits.” From the Basque region bordering France and Spain, Ms. Ara dreamt as a child of being a dancer. To her, “the polka dots of my aunt’s flamenco skirt were the stars of my sky.” No surprise, then, that she was drawn to the Andalusian Gypsy dance form. ”It was my first love; what gave meaning to my life.” For fifteen years, in her hometown, Saint Jean de Luz, she immersed herself in Spanish classical dance studies, before moving to Seville, to live and work as a dancer. Serendipity led her to an apartment above a dance studio, where she met flamenco master Manolo Soler, who assured her she had what it takes to be a professional dancer. Eventually, she caught the eye of Mario Maya, and joined his Spanish dance company, one of the most prestigious in the world.

Love of a different sort brought her to the United States. In 2003, Ms. Ara had become engaged to an American photographer, who wanted to live in San Francisco. Not without “some degree of angst,” she agreed. She found her new dance home with Yaelisa’s Caminos Flamencos, which also became her base for exploring “many angles of the dance profession.” In addition to performing, Ms. Ara now teaches throughout the United States and Mexico. She one day hopes to mount her own company.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Dance

Thang Dao

It is neither fellow choreographers nor dancers that most inspire choreographer Thang Dao. “The most influential mentors, teachers, and inspirations in my life are my parents,” he says. It was their determination to be free, to escape war-torn Vietnam, that today forms a backdrop to all Mr.Dao’s choreography. “Their story and life unendingly nurture my artistic flame.” Through his work, he aims “to make meanings where words fail, create beauty, and give voice to those unable to speak.” He succeeds by introducing new narrative forms into classical structures, using dance as his medium to “communicate, provoke, and inspire social and cultural experiences and discourse.”

Born in Danang, Vietnam, Mr. Dao trained formally at the Juilliard School and Boston Conservatory. He danced professionally with the Stephen Petronio Company, the Metropolitan Opera, and Lisa Reinhardt, before pursuing choreography. In that role, he has worked with Ballet Austin, Ballet X, and Ailey II. His ballet Stepping Ground won the Audience Choice Award all four nights at the First Biannual New American Talent Dance competition, in 2006. In 2008, he received the prestigious Princess Grace Award for choreography; and in 2009, a Special Project Grant for his ballet Quiet Imprint. Ailey II is currently touring nationally and internationally with Echoes, a work originally commissioned by the Boston Conservatory. His works have been performed all over the United States and internationally. Mr. Dao’s future ambitions include “bringing my works to more communities that are, and have been, unexposed to dance.” In that effort, he plans to collaborate with cultural institutions “to create works that embrace social and cultural identities while teaching the tolerance of differences.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Dance

Alice Gosti

Choreographer Alice Gosti prefers to describe herself as an “architect of experiences.” As such, she does not restrict dance to movement and bodies in space; rather, she treats it as a comprehensive work of art. It was during her last year in college that she developed this perspective, through her studies in the Digital Arts and Experimental Media Program, at the University of Washington.” Film, specifically, made her question dance: Why was it that film could inspire more experiences and memories than dance, a three-dimensional, full-body art form? The process of finding the answer, she says, “opened my eyes and my mind to a holistic way of seeing my choreography. Her Spaghetti CO saga, which uses food as a prop, is a reflection of that approach. “Food,” she explains, “is an experience we all share; it comes with memories, smells, flavors, and emotions. Thus, I decided to use it as a prop in my choreography.”

Born in Perugia, Italy, Ms. Gosti received her BA in Dance from the University of Washington, Seattle, which still serves as her home base; she travels widely, performing her choreography throughout the States and internationally. Her videos, too, have been exhibited in group shows worldwide. Since 2009, she has been curating a quarterly series of restaurant cabaret/performances at the Pink Door restaurant in Seattle. Ms. Gosti and the Spaghetti CO project have been chosen to tour, in 2012, as part of Scuba: National Touring Network for Dance; the saga will culminate in a cumulative piece, Eat or Die, in spring/summer 2012.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Dance

Pontus Lidberg

Drawn to dance as a child, Swedish-born choreographer and director Pontus Lidberg believes in the  “ability of dance to both reflect and illuminate the human experience,” and its power “to convey alternative perspectives on our existence, and invite us to change the way we view ourselves and our environment.” From his earliest days as a professional ballet dancer, Mr. Lidberg has been creating his own dance works. When choreography became his primary focus, his career gained international momentum. In this realm, he works within the classical form, preferring, he says “to exercise the freedom to go beyond traditional boundaries, rather than ignore them completely.” He favors putting human emotional experiences at the center of his works, and “creating an emotional climate” is essential to his creative process. 

Mr. Lidberg gained worldwide recognition for his dance film The Rain (2007), which won numerous awards and led to invitations to practice his art in the States. In spring 2008, he held a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts. Later the same year, he was brought to the Vail International Dance Festival by colleague Christopher Wheeldon, who asked him to create a piece for his company, Morphoses. In 2010, he was commissioned to create a work for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process series, and was artist-in-residence at Joyce Soho and the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in New York, working on his next dance-film, Labyrinth Within,which won the Jury Prize for Best Picture at the Dance on Camera Festival in January 2012. He has choreographed works for major dance companies around the world; and, in 2011, his own group, Pontus Lidberg Dance, had its New York debut at the Fall for Dance Festival at NY City Center.

Photo by Erin Baiano

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