2012 Vilcek Prize Recipients

Prize Recipients

2012 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science

Carlos Bustamante, Ph.D.

Carlos J. Bustamante is a natural tinkerer, with a penchant as a child for taking apart and reconstructing toy cars, and building and launching rockets powered by explosive chemicals of his own concoction. Not much has changed. He still likes to tinker; only now he uses magnetic beads, atomic-force microscopes, and laser “tweezers” to explore the inner workings of the cell and the physical forces behind DNA replication.  

The young Bustamante’s scientific drive went into high gear when, as a teenager, he learned about Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Spanish neuroscientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906. Cajal’s work motivated him to buy his first chemistry set and microscope. He had found his “true calling.”

He obtained his Bachelors in Biology in 1973 from Cayetano Heredia University, in Lima, Peru, his hometown, then his Masters in Biochemistry, from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. In 1975, he was admitted to the Biophysics Graduate Program at the University of California, Berkeley, the same year he was named a Fulbright Scholar. After completing his PhD in Biophysics in 1981, he stayed on briefly at Berkeley for postdoc work before joining the faculty of the Chemistry Department at the University of New Mexico, in 1982.

It was during his years in New Mexico that Dr. Bustamante first became interested in the forces at work in DNA replication. Using then-new fluorescence staining techniques and wire electrodes, he and his collaborators induced DNA to move under a microscope. What they saw raised the curtain on the next stage of Dr. Bustamante’s research: DNA was elastic, remarkably so. The experiments he devised subsequently produced a breakthrough discovery: it was possible to manipulate single molecules of DNA and precisely measure their mechanical elasticity, enabling “a more realistic view of the cell’s inner workings.” Previously, scientists could only study massive populations of molecules.  

His research direction now clear, Dr. Bustamante joined the University of Oregon, in 1991, as Professor of Chemistry and member of the Institute of Molecular Biology. Three years later, he was appointed Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator. In 1998, he returned to UC Berkeley, as Professor in the Physics, Chemistry, and Molecular and Cell Biology departments, where he remains today.

Reappointed HHMI Investigator in 2000, Dr. Bustamante continues to develop novel methods of single-molecule manipulation. His work, considered to have opened a new chapter in biomolecular research, has been duly recognized. Time magazine nominated him one America’s Best in 2001. In 2002, the same year he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Physical Society awarded him the Biological Physics Prize. He received the Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004; a year after that, the Richtmyer Memorial Lecture Award by the American Association of Physics Teachers and a Doctor honoris causa by the University of Chicago. He is Director of the Advanced Microscopies Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund.

As for Dr. Bustamante’s plans for the future, he intends nothing less than to build a living cell, using mitochondria. “It’s a crazy idea,” he admits, “but I like crazy ideas.”

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The Vilcek Prize in Dance

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Once in a very great while, an artist comes along of such extraordinary talent and undeniable charisma that he transcends his métier. Since his first appearance on the stage at Lincoln Center, in 1974, Mikhail Baryshnikov has sent dance critics scurrying to their thesauruses in search of new superlatives to describe his artistry and stage presence. However they said it, the message was clear: You have to see him. And in droves, they did. Balletomanes, of course; but soon non-dance fans, too, were lining up to see the virtuoso everyone called, simply, “Misha.”

Born in Riga, Latvia, to Russian parents, Mr. Baryshnikov first took his place at the barre at nine; at fifteen, he entered the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad. Even before the young dancer had made his professional debut, Clive Barnes, then New York Times dance critic, saw him in class and described him as “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.” In 1969, he became principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet, and in five years was well on his way to an illustrious career with the company. But the restrictive atmosphere of the Soviet system offered him few challenges, and so, at twenty-six, he defected, while on tour in Canada. His first performance in the West was with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. But New York beckoned, and on July 27, 1974, he made his debut in American Ballet Theatre’s production of Giselle. “Thunder broke in the theater at Baryshnikov’s entrance,” wrote the Dance Magazine critic. The storm of applause has seldom ceased since.

In 1978, Mr. Baryshnikov crossed the Lincoln Center courtyard to work with George Balanchine at New York City Ballet. He crossed back again in 1980, to become Artistic Director for American Ballet Theatre, a position he held for ten years. Even as he continued to expand his classical repertoire at ABT, always he sought to explore modern choreography, drawn to the work of Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, and others. 

Then, even the larger dance world proved too small to contain his passion for the innovative and exciting, and Mr. Baryshnikov found new outlets in film, Broadway, and television. He won an Oscar nomination for his first film, The Turning Point, in 1977, and a Tony nomination and Drama Critics Award for Metamorphosis, in 1989. He appeared in several Emmy-winning television specials, and won a new generation of fans playing Aleksandr Petrovsky in Sex and the City.

In 1990, he formed, with choreographer Mark Morris, the White Oak Dance Project, born of a desire “to be a driving force in the production of art.” That desire still burning, in 2005, he opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, where young and established artists alike can come to create, and where the public can see their innovative works at low or no cost.

Awards and accolades have followed Mr. Baryshnikov’s nearly every move, beginning in 1966 with the Gold Medal at the International Dance Competition in Varna. A few of the many since include the Kennedy Center Honors, the Jerome Robbins Award, the National Medal of the Arts, the Commonwealth Award, the Chubb Fellowship, and, most recently, the rank of Officer of the French Legion of Honor.

Mr. Baryshnikov still performs, some dance and some theater. And in his more sedentary moments, he is an avid photographer whose work has been exhibited at numerous galleries in the US and abroad.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Alice Ting, Ph.D.

Raised on the knee of science—her father taught her and her two brothers from a young age about geology, physics, and natural history—Alice Ting now stands firmly on her own two feet among the faculty at MIT’s Chemistry Department, where her objective is to “simultaneously harness the power of genetics and the power of chemistry” using new technologies developed in her lab for imaging protein trafficking, protein-protein interactions, and enzymatic activity.

The familiar immigrant dream of a better life in the United States compelled Dr. Ting’s father to apply to graduate school in geophysics at the University of Utah. He eventually took the family from Taiwan to Texas, where, in Dallas, Dr. Ting began her formal education. In high school, she became so “captivated by math” that she transferred to the Texas Academy of Math and Science, in Denton, for her last two years. As it turned out, however, her interest in math could not hold a candle to a “scientific passion for organic chemistry” sparked in her by a laboratory class in the subject. Her enthusiasm and obvious aptitude caught the attention of the lab instructor, who became Dr. Ting’s first mentor, and later encouraged her to apply to Harvard, to work in the lab of “legendary” organic chemist Professor E. J. Corey. Two experiences there mapped Dr. Ting’s career path: her exposure to designer catalysts and her introduction to biochemistry at the molecular level.

With her AB in Chemistry from Harvard in hand, Dr. Ting went West for her doctoral studies, at the University of California, Berkeley, and postdoc work at the University of California, San Diego, under Roger Tsien, whose pioneering work with Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) had won him the 2008 Nobel Prize. In 2002, an offer to join the faculty of MIT’s Chemistry Department drew her back to the East Coast, where she was able to begin tackling the problem that had “repeatedly stymied” her throughout her PhD and postdoc years: site-specific protein labelinghow to label a particular protein with a fluorescent tag or other “chemical probe” to reveal information about that protein’s function. “If one could solve this problem,” Dr. Ting realized, “it would be transformative.” Her goal was to circumvent the many limitations inherent in Dr. Tsien’s GFP technology.

At her lab at MIT, where she is now an Associate Professor with Tenure, Dr. Ting and her colleagues took an unprecedented approach to solve the problem of site-specific protein labeling: to use reengineered natural enzymes. To date, this approach “is still the only generalizable small-tag protein labeling method that works inside living cells.” Her future research goals are to “tackle other extremely important and difficult technological problems at the chemistry-biology interface.”

Dr. Ting, who values teaching and mentoring as intrinsic to her scientific life, is highly regarded by the science community. She has received the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, the McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award, the Technology Review TR35 Award, the Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. In 2011, she was appointed to the Ellen Swallow Richards Chair. 

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Dance

Michel Kouakou

Contemporary artist Michel Kouakou believes “dance can come from anywhere, and be anywhere.” Fluent in the language of dance on four continents, he draws inspiration for his technique from the aesthetic traditions of Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. But his personal identity as a dancer is firmly rooted in Africa, the source of his earliest experiences with movement. Born in Cote d’Ivoire, Mr. Kouakou’s first contact with dance came in the person of Werewere Liking, in the village of Ki Yi M’Bock village, in Abidjan. It was she, he says, who introduced him to the “spiritual dimension of a life through the arts” and gave him a faith in the “unlimited potential of art.” In addition to dance, he studied acrobatics and marionette theater.

Ms. Liking’s lessons were extended by Mr. Kouakou’s next mentor. He had already won several prizes for dance in Abidjan when he began to study with Germaine Acogny, at l’Ecole de Sables, in Senegal. “Germaine,” he says, “taught me to define myself by embracing the larger world of contemporary dance.” She directed him to a path along which he would be influenced and motivated by artists from all over the world, and is, in part, the reason he now considers himself a global artist.  When, in 1999, war in Ivory Coast caused the destruction of arts facilities and institutions there, Mr. Kouakou, determined to feed his “hunger to continue studying and developing as an artist,” traveled to Brussels, where he worked with choreographer Bud Blumenthal. It was the first of many such explorations Mr. Kouakou would make while refining his choreographic style. In Japan, he encountered Butoh, and recognized the similarities between this movement form and the African traditions of “trance” dancing. Over time, he would also work with choreographers from Burkina Fasso, Germany, Italy, and, ultimately, the United States.

In 2003, Mr. Kouakou joined the faculty at the Duncan Centre Conservatory in Prague, to teach modern dance for six months. That same year, he formed his own company, Daara Dance. With his company he has performed in this country at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series, Joyce Soho, and the Bric Studio; at the Bates Dance Festival; and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Internationally, he has presented his work in Britain, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, the Czech Republic, France, Holland, Israel, and Italy.  He is also in demand as a teacher, offering workshops and classes throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States.

For his work, Mr. Kouakou has been honored with a New York Foundation for the Arts Artists’ Fellowship, in 2007; and in 2008, he was nominated for a Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative award. In 2010, he was invited to present his solo dance piece S.A.C.K. at the A.W.A.R.D. Show! 2010: New York.

Mr. Kouakou moved to New York in 2004, and subsequently to Los Angeles, where he is now based. He plans to “maintain his footsteps” across the globe as he pursues his long-term goal of building an “artistic bridge” between his origins in Ivory Coast and the United States.

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  • Vilcek Prize Finalists

    Read about the finalists for the 2012 Vilcek Prizes in Biomedical Science and Dance.