2010 Vilcek Prize Recipients
The Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science
Alexander Varshavsky, Ph.D.
Alexander Varshavsky was born to do science: his father was a scientist, his mother a physician a case of nurture and nature combined, as he describes it. He was also born into a society whose privations suppressed many of the great scientific minds of the period. “Living in a Communist country was a psychologically difficult affair...,” he recalls. “Before managing to escape from the Soviet Union in 1977, I had some brushes with disasters that would have left me unable to become a scientist, had I not been lucky.” Still, he won a place as a student in the Chemistry Department at prestigious Moscow University, and later at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB), where his ambition and love of science fueled his desire to excel, even as he recognized that “real” molecular biology was being done primarily in the West. In 1973, Dr. Varshavshy received his PhD, on the topic of the organization and structure of chromosomes. When some of his scientific papers found their way into Western journals, he began to receive invitations to speak abroad, but came hard up against the Soviet barriers to travel. Eventually, under circumstances worthy of a Cold War spy novel, and due to the support and efforts of fellow scientists, Dr. Varshavsky defected to the United States, where almost immediately he was offered a position at the Biology Department at MIT. He spent fifteen years there, studying first the structure and replication of chromosomes, before changing focus to the ubiquitin system, a new area of study at the time. In 1992, he moved his laboratory to California Institute of Technology (Caltech), to become the Smits Professor of Cell Biology. There, he and his colleagues continue to advance research in the field of ubiquitin and regulated protein degradation, significant to the understanding of cancer, immunity, birth defects, and many other illnesses.
The enormity of Dr. Varshavsky’s achievements is reflected in the number of awards he has received in recognition of his work: the Gairdner Award; the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research; the General Motors Sloan Prize; the Wolf Prize in Medicine; the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University, in 2001, for his research on ubiquitination; and the Wilson Medal. In 2007, he also received the first $1 million Gotham Prize for an original approach to killing cancer cells, called deletion-specific targeting (DST), which, he says, “involves finding a genuine Achilles heel of cancer cells.” Dr. Varshavsky is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He lives with his wife, a doctor, in Pasadena, California.
The Vilcek Prize in The Arts
The phrase “Made in Spain” has taken on new meaning since José Andrés has come on the culinary arts scene ~~ though, truly, he has never been anywhere else. Making paellas at his father’s side as a child, this prodigy was already a student at the renowned Escola de Restauracio I Hostalatge de Barcelona at 15. After graduating and spending time working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, including with his friend and mentor Ferran Adria at El Bulli, Mr. Andrés came to the United States, where he wasted no time in taking the food-loving American public by storm. As exuberant as the spices he uses to season his food, and with seemingly boundless energy, Mr. Andrés is credited with bringing both traditional and avant-garde Spanish fare to this country. Known to “foodies” from coast to coast, thanks to his widespread popularity on television and radio, and in food magazines and newspapers, he is regarded by many as Spain’s unofficial ambassador to this country.
His home base is the Washington, DC, area, where Mr. Andrés has launched his entrepreneurial career as both chef and businessman, and quickly made a success of both. His culinary vision and innovations have inspired numerous restaurant concepts in the region, including the Jaleo Spanish restaurants, Café Atlantico, Zaytinya, Oyamel, and his widely acclaimed minibar by josé andrés. In 2008 his influence reached California with the opening of the four-star rated Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel, Beverly Hills, his partnership with SBE Hotel Group. A James Beard Award-winning chef, Mr. Andrés was named one of GQ magazine’s 2009 Men of the Year, Bon Appetit magazine named him Chef of the Year in 2004; the Bravo Network awarded him the A-List chef prize at its first A-List Awards; and in 2007, he was inducted into the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. Not one to forget his roots, Mr. Andrés shares his love of his homeland with viewers of his PBS series Made in Spain, co-produced by his company ThinkFoodGroup, which manages his dining destinations, branding and media ventures and concept consulting. Passionate about solving issues of hunger and nutrition, he works tirelessly on behalf of D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that feeds the homeless and provides career training in food service. Mr. Andrés was born in Asturias, Spain; he currently lives with his wife and three daughters in Maryland.
The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science
Harmit Malik, Ph.D.
Dr. Harmit Singh Malik describes his scientific research as an “evolutionary arms race,” whose combatants are microscopic genes, each battling to attain evolutionary dominance over its neighbors and, in so doing, assure its long-term survival. As in all such conflicts, the cost to the unwitting host organism can be very high. When that host is the human genome, the price may be paid in susceptibility to such deadly invaders as the HIV virus, some forms of cancer, and other diseases. Dr. Malik, who likens the structure of our genome to a “negotiated truce,” believes that the best way to understand that armistice is to reconstruct the events that produced it. To that end, he traces the evolutionary histories of genes from different organisms, in order to understand the biological forces that shape essential DNA elements and to understand the ongoing rivalry between pathogens and their hosts.
Dr. Malik places a high value on being intellectually fearless—not to be afraid of being wrong. This philosophy serves as the underpinning to his career. Originally on a path toward chemical engineering, suggested by his results on the all-India Joint Entrance Exam, he earned a bachelor’s degree in the subject from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. But while still an undergraduate, he recognized his strong preference for biology. An introductory course in molecular biology—in particular, the topic of transposons (“jumping genes”)—cemented his new direction and, he says, “got the ball rolling in my PhD career.” It also provided the impetus for his immigration from India to the United States, in 1993.
Graduate biology departments in India preferred entrants with strong biology backgrounds, and Dr. Malik found greater openness among schools in the United States. He accepted the offer of a prestigious Sproull Fellowship from the University of Rochester, New York, where he quickly proved himself, even winning accolades for teaching an introductory genetics course he had never taken himself. He also put to good use his engineering capabilities, guiding the Rochester biology department into the bioinformatics age, specifically the use of phylogenetic software. His research focus at this time was on retrotransposons, “selfish” genes, which exploit host organisms to self-perpetuate. His findings essentially rewrote retrotransposon history, demonstrating that these genes were present in evolutionarily ancestral species⎯not, as believed by most geneticists at the time, spread from one organism to another, like viruses.
In 1999, with his PhD in hand, Dr. Malik took the postdoc track to Seattle, Washington, for a position at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he began work with investigator Steven Henikoff on centromeres (repetitive sequences of DNA that do not code for proteins), advancing his hypotheses on evolutionary gene conflict. Today, an Associate Member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) Basic Sciences division, and head of his own lab, Dr. Malik incorporates biochemistry and genomics to study genetic conflicts of, most notably: centromeres, innate and intrinsic immunity against viruses in primates, and mobile genetic elements in drosophila (“fruit flies”). He is also interested in genes induced by the interferon response, and his future plans include investigating genes identified in the expression of genome-wide association screens for predisposition to cancers.
In addition to his position at FHCRC, Dr. Malik is an Early Career Scientist of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle. Equally as important to him as these official titles is his role as a mentor, to high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows in his lab, and starting junior faculty at FHCRC. Dr. Malik has won numerous awards and honors, most recently: the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (2009), the aforementioned HHMI Early Career Scientist Award (2009-2015), and the National Science Foundation Career Award (2008-2013).
The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in The Arts
Varin Keokitvon is in pursuit of excellence, as a chef, as a teacher. “I want to be the best,” he says, “so I emulate the best.” He is unstinting in his praise of the master craftsmen who are his professional role models, but it is the heritage of this young and already highly accomplished culinary artist that inspires him to “continue to push limits, not just in what I create, but in all aspects of my life.” It is through his achievements in the culinary arts, he says, that he honors the sacrifices his parents made for him, and the vision of his late mother, whom he credits with instilling the values he lives and works by day to day.
One need look no further than the imagery of Mr. Keokitvon’s desserts, which can only be described as culinary artistry, to recognize the strong cultural influence on his creations. The Laos-born artist regularly uses sugar, chocolate, pastillage⎯the “media” of the pastry chef⎯to shape and stylize various forms of the lotus flower, native to and symbolic of his homeland. The homage does not end there: he infuses traditional American desserts with such Asian flavors as tamarind, mango, pandan leaf, coconut, and jasmine tea.
Even as he takes pride in his accomplishments in the culinary arena (he has won first place at the local, regional, and national levels in the prestigious Châine Des Rôtissuers, Meilleur Jeune Commis⎯Best Young Chef⎯competition), Varin Keokitvon sees a greater purpose for himself. While still a student, he realized that he wanted to teach, and to serve as a mentor to young people, especially those struggling to find their way. Today, he is the sous chef and Chef Instructor at FareStart, in Seattle, Washington, a culinary job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged individuals, which also serves millions of meals to men, women, and children in need in the community. He is also deeply involved as a volunteer peer mentor at The Service Board (TSB), an outreach program for at-risk high school students.
Mr. Keokitvon has made his home in Seattle, Washington, since coming with his family to this country from Laos, via Thailand, in 1986, when he was two years old. His parents’ professional lives were stripped away by war; his mother had been a banker, and his father a pilot in the Royal Laos Air Force, until his capture by the Pathet Lao (Laotian communists). After nine years as a POW, his father escaped and the family fled to Thailand, where after two years they received permission to immigrate to America. Mr. Keokitvon received his Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in culinary arts from North Seattle Community College, in 2005; and in 2008, he went on to earn an AAS in pastry and specialty breads from Seattle Central Community College.
Vilcek Prize Finalists
Read about the finalists for the 2010 Vilcek Prizes in Biomedical Science and Culinary Arts.