2009 Vilcek Prize Recipients

Prize Recipients

2009 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science

Huda Zoghbi, M.D.

Huda Zoghbi’s first semester of medical school at the American University in Beirut was shattered by civil war. Determined to finish the year, she and her fellow students and their professors lived in the basement of the medical school building, attending class in “safe” rooms, with double-thick walls. Perseverance was to become a hallmark of Dr. Zoghbi’s character, and be instrumental to the achievements of this internationally renowned child neurologist and molecular geneticist - notably, the discovery of the gene responsible for Rett syndrome.

Forced by the escalating war in Lebanon to complete her medical studies in the States, Dr. Zoghbi received her MD from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1979. She joined the pediatric residency program at the Baylor College of Medicine and, during a rotation in neurology, became “fascinated by the brain.” A three-year residency/fellowship program in pediatric neurology followed, in 1982, at Baylor.

Intending to become a pediatric clinician, an encounter with a five-year-old girl at Texas Children’s Hospital and an article on Rett syndrome in the Annals of Neurology redirected Dr. Zoghbi’s professional path. She learned that girls almost exclusively are afflicted by this rare neurodevelopmental disorder. They typically develop normally for six to eighteen months and then begin to lose the ability to speak, walk, and use their hands; many display repetitive hand-wringing; their head growth slows and they begin to exhibit autistic-like behavior. That information enabled Dr. Zoghbi to diagnose Rett syndrome in her patient. One week after that, she recognized the syndrome again, in an eleven-year-old girl. A search of medical records at the hospital turned up five more patients.

Realizing that solving the problem of this mysterious disease would require research training, Dr. Zoghbi went back to school, in molecular genetics. Rett syndrome, would have to wait, however, as too little data was available at the time to make it the launch point of her new career. Instead, she focused on spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1), a crippling, neurodegenerative disease that affects balance and coordination. In 1988, she set up her own laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine, and began a close collaboration with Dr. Harry Orr of the University of Minnesota, who was also working on SCA1. Astonishingly, in 1993, both cloned the SCA1 gene on the same day. Behind the scenes, Dr. Zoghbi continued to work on Rett syndrome. In 1999, sixteen years after first learning of the disease, she and her collaborators identified mutations in the MECP2 gene as the cause of Rett syndrome.

Today a professor of Pediatrics, Neurology, Neuroscience, and Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Zoghbi says her ultimate professional goal is “to actually make a patient better” through treatments resulting from her discoveries in research.

Dr. Zoghbi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine; she is also a trustee at the American University of Beirut. She has been honored with the E. Mead Johnson Award for Pediatric Research, the nation’s most distinguished pediatric research award; the Kilby Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Society through Science, Technology, Innovation, Invention, and Education; the Sidney Carter Award; and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research.

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The Vilcek Prize in The Arts

Mike Nichols

Through his groundbreaking work in improvisational comedy, theater, and film, Mike Nichols has, for almost a half-century, shown us that through honesty - in particular, the special brand of honesty conferred by humor - we can make some sense of life, and when we can’t, to laugh at it. Who in the American audience has not felt the frisson of self-recognition while in the presence of characters shaped by Mr. Nichols, on-screen or onstage? Even those few people - should any exist - who have not seen his trend-setting movies assuredly have seen their “offspring,” the works of other filmmakers who have been indelibly influenced by his distinctive approach and technique.

Only the most ardent of film and theater buffs, however, knows that this virtuoso of the American entertainment landscape was not born on American soil. Mike Nichols began life as Michael Peschkowsky, in Berlin, the son of a Russian-born father and a German mother. With the voice of Hitler still ringing in his ears, he escaped to this country in 1939. The journey from dockside to center stage was a difficult one, marred by a troubled home life and the inevitable immigrant struggle to master a new language and “fit in.” Smart and quick-witted, early on Mr. Nichols found the power in humor, and began to master its intricacies, often using his childhood experiences as seed for laughter. He worked the ground while at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s, where luck landed him among a talented theater group; full germination occurred when he met and paired with the brilliant Elaine May. For four years, the duo refined the art of improvisational comedy.

After the pair broke up, Mr. Nichols found something he was even better at than comedy: directing. In less than ten years (1963 - 1972), he directed five hit plays on Broadway and won four Tonys. In 1966, he made the move to Hollywood. Directing the film version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf earned him his first Academy Award nomination; the four leading actors were also nominated, a first in Academy history. He took Oscar home for his second film, The Graduate, at the same time launching his reputation for audacious casting and an uncanny ability to bring out the best in actors.

Over the years, Mr. Nichols has proved to be consistently light on his directorial feet, moving deftly between stage, screen, and television; along the way, he added producer to his skill set. He is one of the elite in show business to have won all the major entertainment awards: Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy. He has twice more been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (Silkwood and Working Girl), and once as producer (The Remains of the Day).  In addition to his Oscar, his awards shelf is weighed down by an astounding nine Tonys (Barefoot in the Park, Luv, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Annie, The Real Thing, Spamalot, and Whoopi), one Grammy (Best Comedy Album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May), four Emmys (two for Wit and two for Angels in America), and two Drama Desk Awards (Comedians and Annie). He is the recipient of the George Abbott Award, the Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, and the Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award; he also has been recognized by the American Museum of the Moving Image for his contributions to the film industry. He is a co-founder of the New Actors Workshop in New York City.

Mr. Nichols passed away in New York City in 2014, at the age of 83.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Howard Chang, M.D., Ph.D.

Why do long hairs grow on our scalp, but not on our palms or the soles of our feet? How do cells decide where they should be located in the body? Unconventional questions such as these - in particular, those with a direct connection to human diseases - drive the research of Dr. Howard Y. Chang, a practicing dermatologist and Associate Professor of Dermatology and principal investigator in the Program in Epithelial Biology at the Stanford School of Medicine. A passion for finding the answers to these questions and others has led to the discovery of a number of valuable and far-reaching insights into gene regulation.

With a disciplined mind even as a teenager, Taipei, Taiwan-born Dr. Chang remembers well the shock of his first day in junior high school in southern California, where his family had moved when he was twelve years old. Daunted equally by classroom rowdiness and his inability to speak English, initially he made do with a vocabulary gleaned from watching eighties sitcoms. By high school, he had resolved to improve his English, by joining the debate team, and came to relish the freedom in America to argue both sides of an issue. He went on to earn his AB in Biochemical Sciences, from Harvard University, in 1994. He then joined the Harvard-MIT MD-PhD program, and together with MIT Professor David Baltimore discovered several key biochemical control mechanisms of how cells self-destruct (a process called programmed cell death), which have important applications in the study of cancer, autoimmunity, and degenerative diseases.

Dr. Chang completed his PhD in two years, and while pursuing medical training in dermatology, began to pursue his postdoctoral research in Professor Patrick Brown’s lab at Stanford University. There, he began a new research program to understand the basis of site-specific differences in human skin, resulting in novel modes of gene control that extends from cancer treatment to aging.

To understand why skin cells in diverse parts of the body have different characteristics - how cells know their “positional identities” - a fact that guides the diagnosis and treatment of many skin diseases, Dr. Chang and his colleagues are seeking to define in molecular terms how the expression of different genes in stromal cells determines their ability to affect the development of skin cells. The answers they have discovered so far reveal critical information about gene regulation; specifically, that cells are used to record the positional identity in human tissues, and that the “perturbation,” the disturbance, of such programs plays a major role in cancer progression, especially in metastasis, whereby cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. These breakthroughs may suggest new approaches for the treatment of malignant tumors.

Dr. Chang is a prolific and acclaimed writer. He has published more than 60 papers in such journals as Nature, Cell, Science, Nature Genetics, PLoS Genetics, Genes and Development, and Genome Research, with more in press. Dr. Chang has received the American Academy of Dermatology Young Investigator Award, the Damon Runyon Scholar Award, and the American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award. He is a member of the Stanford Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in The Arts

Ham Tran

In the films of Ham Tran, stories gone untold too long are unraveled, voices kept silent too long are heard. They are the stories of the Vietnamese boat people and the survivors of the reeducation camps, and they are not easy to tell. Mr. Tran found his way to do so through laughter. Post-college, as a member of a theater comedy group called Club O ’Noodles (“instant comedy”), with other immigrants he performed in sketches that made it possible to laugh at the refugee experience, but always with the pathos lurking closely behind.

Born in Saigon, in 1982, Mr. Tran immigrated as a refugee at the age of eight to America, with his ethnic Chinese Vietnamese parents. The desire to regain memories lost during the process of assimilation - “institutionalized amnesia,” he calls it - drew him to poetry, prose, playwriting, and, eventually, filmmaking. Even before leaving college, with a BA in English Literature from UCLA and an MFA from the UCLA School of Film and Television, Mr. Tran’s multifaceted talent for storytelling on film became evident - he writes, directs, edits, and produces. His first two short films, The Prescription and Pomegranate were semifinalists for the Student Academy Awards; and his 28-minute thesis film, The Anniversary, about two brothers separated by the Vietnam War, qualified for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, in 2004, and has won more than 30 international film festival awards.

While working on The Anniversary, Mr. Tran became aware that no film had ever been made about the war years in Vietnam, from the Vietnamese perspective. His first feature film, Journey from the Fall, emerged from that realization. Inspired by a true story, it chronicles one family’s struggle for freedom as they flee their country after the fall of Saigon in 1975, as well as those forced to stay behind. Journey from the Fall was an Official Selection for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the FIPRESCI Award for Best ASEAN Film at the 2006 Bangkok Film Festival; it has won 16 international awards.

Mr. Tran is now working on his second feature film, Distant Country, about two Vietnamese illegal immigrants whose dreams of reaching the United States take them on a journey around the world. Another new project is a documentary film, tentatively titled, Sponsored ’75, which traces the lives of Vietnamese families rescued from four American refugee camps in 1975, and their sponsors.

Mr. Tran is part of a new Vietnamese filmmaking movement called the Viet Wave, whose mission is to bring Vietnamese-content films to American movie houses through Wave Releasing, the first Vietnamese-American film distribution company. He is an active member of the Asian and Pacific Islander community and serves on the board of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association. He has also directed a promotional video for the Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience and Empowerment, and worked with the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance to create a curriculum around Journey from the Fall to help change the way the history of the Vietnam War is taught in high schools across America. And he remains a comedian in good standing at Club O’Noodles.

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  • Vilcek Prize Finalists

    Read about the finalists for the 2009 Vilcek Prizes in Biomedical Science and Filmmaking.