2014 Vilcek Prize Recipients

Prize Recipients

2014 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science

Thomas Jessell, Ph.D.

Connections can shape destinies. Perhaps nowhere is the truth of the axiom more evident than in the three-decade-long studies of Columbia University neuroscientist Thomas Jessell.  Jessell’s work has uncovered the principles that control the development of the nervous system’s intricate connections – the neural networks that permit animals to navigate the physical world. With painterly grace, Jessell has peeled back layers of the spinal cord’s astounding molecular complexity to reveal how specific classes of neurons are generated in growing embryos and form the elaborate circuits that control muscle movement. His research has unveiled nature’s blueprint for aligning brain circuits with behavior, revealing a byzantine network of neuronal interactions that underlies movement in mammals.

So it is perhaps fitting that Jessell’s career has taken a circuitous trajectory – through three continents and some of the world’s most prestigious venues for biological research. His foray began in the 1970s in his native London, likely influenced by family members accomplished in science and the arts: His grandfather was a distinguished organic chemist, his father, a civil aviation expert, and his mother, a paintings conservator.  Resisting the lure of art history in favor of neuropharmacology, Jessell began his doctoral studies at Cambridge University in the laboratory of Leslie Iversen, whose mentorship introduced Jessell to the international nature of neuroscience.

Jessell’s early studies focused on the role of neuropeptides as chemical transmitters in the central nervous system, with an emphasis on the control of pain signals in the spinal cord.  After a brief period of research on the same theme in Tokyo, Jessell began his post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School in 1978, working in the lab of Gerald Fischbach.  There, Jessell used the techniques of cell biology to study the development of structures called synapses between nerves and muscles.  Appreciating the diversity of neuroscience in the United States, Jessell soon began an independent research career in the renowned neurobiology department at Harvard Medical School, where he explored the organization and function of the central nervous system through an analysis of its wiring during embryonic development. Four years at Harvard led to insights into the molecular programs that direct functional connections in the brain and spinal cord.

By the early 1980s, Columbia University had begun to emerge as a pioneering center for molecular approaches to the study of brain function. Chief among the champions of this approach were future Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Richard Axel, whose work on the link between genes and behavior convinced Jessell to accept a faculty position at Columbia.  So in 1985 Jessell joined the nascent Columbia revolution in neuroscience, contributing discoveries on the cellular and genetic logic governing the formation of motor and sensory neurons, which together establish the reflexes that control limb movement. Over the years, Jessell’s research has furnished a remarkably complete view of the mechanisms that wire spinal circuits for sensation and movement. Aglow with canny scientific reasoning and a colorist’s technical virtuosity, this view has provided a conceptual template for the assembly of the brain’s myriad networks.   

From a clinical perspective, Jessell’s findings have paved the way for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, notably spinal muscular atrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease. As one example, using insights from embryonic development, Jessell has been able to convert embryonic stem cells into functioning motor neurons, facilitating the discovery of medicines to treat such diseases.

The significance of Jessell’s contributions has been widely recognized: He has received the March of Dimes Prize in developmental biology, the inaugural Kavli Prize in neuroscience and the Canada Gairdner International Award, among others. He has been elected to The Royal Society and Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom and the United States National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine.

Photo credit: Jill Levine

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The Vilcek Prize in Design

Neri Oxman, Ph.D.

Born to a family of architects and builders of the new State of Israel, architect and designer Neri Oxman was raised in Haifa’s Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Her father was trained at Harvard amidst a young generation of architects dedicated to remaking Modernism. Her mother was the keeper of tradition, born to a family of wine-makers and educators who helped shape the Hebrew language. Her childhood memories remain etched in her mind: her grandmother’s fig tree garden, where she daydreamed hundreds of afternoons; her father’s collection of modern works, her precious herbaria. These memories now coalesce into a single yet timeless image that continues to guide Ms. Oxman’s work and nourish her worldview.

Initially drawn to medicine, Ms. Oxman studied at Hadassah Medical School, in Jerusalem. Later driven by a passion to build, she entered the Technion to study architecture and received her diploma from the Architectural Association in London where she was first introduced to digital design. Following a period of professional work in London, she journeyed to the States to complete her PhD at MIT under her mentor, the late Professor William J. Mitchell. Today, Ms. Oxman is MIT’s Sony Corporation Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences.

While Nature is her muse, Ms. Oxman’s medium is decidedly twenty-first-century. Using computer algorithms and digital fabrication technologies such as 3D printers, she transforms optimized shapes and environmental behaviors into three-dimensional forms and systems. “Can we emulate spongy formations in the bone to create highly optimized forms?”  One need only view her creations to sense the breadth of her approach. For example, the experimental chaise lounge, ironically named “Beast” designed in collaboration with Professor W. Craig Carter and fabricated by Stratasysis printed out of eight materials of varying flexibility countering the body’s pressure points.  

Ms. Oxman’s work flows effortlessly across disciplines, be it materials science, computation, or fantastic zoology. Her multidisciplinary approach to design led her to develop the design field of Material Ecology, dedicated to establishing a “deeper, more scientific and precise relationship between the design object and its environment.” Believing that the “age of the machine” is poised to give way to the “age of biology,” she seeks to do away with assembly lines that have, for over a century, “dictated a world made of parts.” To accelerate design practices into this new age, she founded, in 2010, the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, where her research is at the intersection of biology, computational design, materials science and digital fabrication.

Ms. Oxman’s groundbreaking design approach and creations have attracted worldwide attention. Her Natural Artifice series, commissioned by MoMA and now in its permanent collection, embodies her unique approach to “form-finding.” The Pompidou Centre acquired her work Imaginary Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet, which represents the ancient myths through the lens of material expression, human augmentation and technology. Other notable Ms. Oxman venues include the Museum of Art and Design, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as private collections.

For her groundbreaking achievements Ms. Oxman was named “Revolutionary Mind” by SEED Magazine; one of ICON’s top 20 most influential architects; and one of the 100 Most Creative People by Fast Company. She has received a 40 Under 40 Building Design + Construction Award, a Graham Foundation Carter Manny Award, the International Earth Award for Future-Crucial Design, and a METROPOLIS Next Generation Award. Hailed by WIRED as “Nature’s Architect,” Ms. Oxman continues to challenge the design and construction of objects, buildings, and systems, even those that seem unimaginable. Yet.

Photo credit Noah Kalina

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Antonio Giraldez, Ph.D.

Raised in winemaking country in Jerez, Spain, Antonio Giraldez was too young to drink the region’s specialty sherry but just the right age to play with the petri dishes and beakers his father, an administrator in a winery, brought home from the scientists at work. They became the founding components of the ten-year-old’s bedroom chem labfrom which emanated “a smell that is hard to describe.” Growing along with the substances in the petri dishes was the budding scientist’s fascination with tissue cultures, which in time developed into an interest in chemistry. Initially, the twowine and chemistrycame together for him, at the University of Cádiz, where he investigated the effect of the sun on the polyphenol compounds in sherry.

But wine was not in his futurenot as a field of study, anyway. More attracted to the chemistry of life than of wine, he went to study at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, where he came in contact with “really big science” and was introduced to fly genetics and “the wonderful world of developmental biology.” A summer internship at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, in Heidelberg, Germany, followed by his PhD studies there, both under the mentorship of Stephen Cohen, opened wide the door to his scientific future. It was while he was working on his doctoral project, wing formation in fruit flies, that a discovery made by other investigators in the labof the first microRNA (a small RNA important in the regulation of gene expression) identified in the fly captured his attention and has held it ever since. But not until he was a postdoc did he begin to formulate his own research in the emerging field of tiny RNA (microRNAs) molecules that regulate protein expression.

Upon completion of his PhD, Dr. Giraldez knew only two things: that he “wanted to explore the scientific atmosphere of the United States” and that he wanted to change his research focus to a vertebrate system while continuing to study how animals develop. “ In 2003, he arrived in New York City to join Dr. Alex Schier’s Laboratory at New York University. One sleepless night he “decided to study how those tiny RNAs (microRNAs) control the making of the embryo,” using zebrafish. Then news came that some microRNAs had been identified at MIT in the small tropical fish. It was all he needed to hear.  An experiment he conducted with one of those microRNAs proved that it was indeed the “shredder” that cleared those maternal instructions, allowing the embryo to move on in development. Uncovering this long-sought mechanism was “a dream come true” says Dr. Giraldez. 

Now an Associate Professor in genetics at Yale, and working from his own laboratory there, Dr. Giraldez and his team are focused on answering such questions as: How does an embryo develop from a fertilized egg? How is the machinery set in motion to activate the right genes at the right time after fertilization? Already, exciting findings they have made “represent the beginning of life from a transcriptional standpoint, and uncover the long-sought factors that initiate zygotic development in vertebrates.”

In addition to directing his lab, Dr. Giraldez spearheads junior faculty support groups and mentoring and leadership courses, to give beginning investigators the additional skills training most need. He also recently became Director of Graduate Studies, a post through which he hopes to make a positive impact on the scientific careers and lives of PhD students. 

Photo credit: Marietta Schupp, EMBL 

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Stavros Lomvardas, Ph.D.

Stavros Lomvardas grew up inspired by what he calls “the highest concentration of poets, writers, sculptors, philosophers, and scientists in Greece,” who had taken refuge from the military junta on the mythical island of Ikaria (named for Icarus, son of Daedalus, who fell into the sea nearby). But he was most inspired by his own father. A successful dentist, the elder Lomvardas had a passion for biology and shared it with his son. “He would always bring me books and talk to me about experiments and help me to design my own. So from a very young age I knew I wanted to be a scientist.”

The “magical world” created by his father became for Dr. Lomvardas the entry point into the real world of science, where he would one day work with Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Richard Axel and conduct research into the molecular mechanisms of olfactory receptors“one of the most enigmatic and complex problems in biology.” He began his studies at the University of Crete, where he felt “the unlimited joy of doing research in biology” even as he came to recognize the long-term limitations of going forward with it in Greece. The question of where to go after completing his Bachelor of Science in molecular biology was answered by a trip to New York City.

Accepted into the graduate program at Columbia University, the intellectual freedom he experienced there was intoxicating. “I felt like a kid in candy store!” he says, remembering his first rotation at Columbia. He joined the Dimitris Thanos lab “at the perfect time,” when a growing appreciation of the importance of chromatin in gene regulation presented many opportunities for the ambitious and eager young scientist. He received his PhD in biochemistry (along with the Harold M. Weintraub Award for outstanding achievement) in 2002, and for his postdoc work transferred to the lab of Richard Axel. This proved to be a life-changing experience, which instilled in him the goal “to conduct science the way he taught me.” Toward the end of his postdoc, as a Helen Hay Whitney Foundation fellow, Dr. Lomvardas started working on DNA methylation and other epigenetic modifications of olfactory receptors. He plans to continue his research in this vein at his own lab at the University of California-San Francisco, where he moved in 2006 and is now an Associate Professor on the Anatomy faculty. Exciting findings in his lab have already opened new experimental directions, he says.

Dr. Lomvardas is venturing in another new direction, as well, one taking him away from basic science and toward the application of scientific knowledge to treat diseasespecifically, Rett syndrome, for which he received New Investigator Award funding from the Rett Syndrome Research Trust, in 2009. That research, to investigate the MeCP2 protein and its role in this rare genetic disorder that affects the way the brain develops, primarily in girls, represents a major shift in attitude for the geneticist. “Until five years ago,” he explains, “I thought it was utopic to expect that basic science could be used, at least in the near future, to treat diseases. I realize now that scientists cannot sit at our lab benches preoccupied only with the joy of doing pure science. We have an obligation to also help people.” 

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Pardis Sabeti, M.D., Ph.D.

“Doing the math” is second nature to Pardis Sabeti. She discovered her love for the subject under the preschool tutelage of her older sister, Parisa, which also gave her a two-year head start over her classmates. She’s been ahead of the curve ever sinceNational Merit Scholar, graduation from MIT in biology with a perfect grade-point average, Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and summa cum laude distinction from Harvard Medical School.

It was at Oxford, as part of her research into human genetic resistance to malaria that Dr. Sabeti worked to fine-tune an algorithm she had developed to identify more recent changes in the human genome. But her approach was considered offbeat, and for a time it seemed as if she was “going to go nowhere.” Undeterred, she kept at it when she returned to Boston for med school, taking “a series of little steps“ exploring neighborhoods of the human genome looking for rapid changes in a population’s DNA, signals of the beneficial results of natural selection.

Finally, one very early morning, she had a working model of her algorithm, which she then applied to a specific gene in some DNA samples. “The results,” she recalls, “were beautiful.” She’d found a trait that “had to be a result of natural selection[one] that likely helped the population I was looking at cope with malaria better than others.” Her discovery helps scientists understand how humans have evolved to become resistant to infectious diseases, and how the microbes underlying these diseases evolve to develop drug resistance.  In turn, it is the hope that this information might help us to defeat these microbes and the resistance they develop.

Her own resistance, to giving up, Dr. Sabeti attributes to her background as “a child of a revolution.” On the run from the fundamentalist regime in 1978 Iran, she and her family left Tehran and arrived in the United States knowing neither the language nor the people, and  started life over again. Throughout the years of turmoil, her parents remained strong and optimistic, and their example is what motivates her to “work hard and always maintain positivity in the face of all odds.”

Since that 3:00 a.m. revelation in 2002, Dr. Sabeti has continued to take on big challenges, notably the deadly Lassa fever virus. For this work, she went out into the field, a dangerous one five thousand miles away, to collect blood samples. At her core, though, she remains a computational scientist, and conducts her research in that vein at her lab at Harvard, where she’s an Associate Professor. But now she also realizes that “what makes this work truly meaningful is its impact on human health.”

Dr. Sabeti’s accomplishments have been widely recognized: by a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, a Packard Foundation Award in Science and Engineering, an NIH Innovator Award, and the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for natural sciences, plus awards from NIAID and the Gates Foundation. She’s a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a PopTech Science Fellow, and a National Geographic Explorer.

And, by the way, she’s also lead singer in an indie rock band, Thousand Days. It’s a sideline she “picked up” while in grad school and now sees as a natural extension of her work. “Music, like science,” she says, “is not only a creative pursuit, but connects us to others.”

Photo credit: Morgan Miller 

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Design

Yasaman Hashemian

“I grew up in a country with a very dry education system,” says Yasaman Hashemian of Iran. “It was not interactive; it was not joyful; and perhaps worst of all, it was often boring.” Outside the classroom was an entirely different world, however. With the encouragement of her parents, she spent many happy hours involved in outdoor activities, exercise, arts, and handcrafts, activities that taught her the importance of “healthy living practices, creativity, and teamwork.” Yet both experiences proved valuable, as together they would serve as the underpinning of Ms. Hashemian’s career as an interactive media designer.

Continuing her education in Iran, she made the best of the limited course options available to her at Tabriz University. She chose computer science and gained “a strong understanding of computer programming and digital graphics design.” But upon receiving her bachelor’s degree she was left with “a desire for something new.” She knew she had a “passion for human interactions” so she worked initially as a teacher and trainer for children, and “learned a great deal about their perspectives and understanding of the world.” From that emerged “a desire to enrich children’s lives by making high technology more accessible to them.”

Her first step toward achieving that goal was to apply, in 2008, to the MFA program at the University of Southern California’s School of the Cinematic Arts, Interactive Media Division. She was no stranger to the United Statesit had been a frequent vacation destination for her family over the years. Still, she felt “unprepared for the challenges inherent to taking up residence in another country,” and became aware of “being different.” At the same time, she was intrigued by those differences, and used them to nurture her creativity as she learned more about design at USC, from board game design to transmedia storytelling to the implementation of emerging technologies. Especially inspiring to her were the projects she collaborated on at the school’s Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center (CM&BHC). Each project she worked on there, she says, “propelled my design and art skills to new heights, while allowing me to employ my unique perspective as an Iranian immigrant.” She turned, for example, to memories of her native culture, where social eating is fundamental to a healthy family, for her insights into Virtual Sprouts, a healthy-eating intervention game directed at the low-income Hispanic population, to help reverse unhealthy eating habits and prevent obesity.

Ms. Hashemian has also collaborated on Enchanted Garden, “a stereoscopic, touch-based game designed to introduce young children to simple concepts about vision,” and the Brain Architecture project, a board game that helps communicate how brain development is affected by genes, environment, and behavior. But her most ambitious undertaking to date is the game she is developing for her thesis project, called Adventurous Dreaming Highflying Dragon. The full-body-driven game, still in prototype, is based on research evidence that shows physical activity can help improve the symptoms of children with ADHD. 

Currently a scholar visitor at CM&BHC, Ms. Hashemian plans eventually to start her own company, where she can employ her design skills and experience to “create practical artistic works that everyone can use and enjoy.” And for her, “Reaching children is particularly important because providing a better environment for them means achieving a better society in the future.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Design

Mansour Ourasanah

In a practical sense, Mansour Ourasanah has always been an artist and designer. Drawing came to him naturally, and was a mechanism for coping with the “agony of poverty and the absence of my parents,” who left him at two in Togo, West Africa, “in search of a better life in the United States.” As a boy, he was already solving problems through design. He made “soccer balls out of discarded plastic bags and toy cars out of discarded aluminum cans.” He had more trouble mastering the discipline of study, and this he was taught by the strict aunt who raised him: “How will you explain your art to the world if you can’t talk or write?”

At sixteen, Mr. Ourasanah was reunited with his parents, in New York City, carrying off the plane with him at JFK dreams of becoming a cartoonist. But speaking only French and believing he owed it to his parents to be “more than just an artist,” he turned to math. He conquered that subject, as well as English, graduated fifth in his class, and won the prestigious New York Times Scholarship. He enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, in engineering, but couldn’t silence the siren call of art. In his sophomore year, “by accident,” he discovered design. “I knew I was born to be a designer,” he says. Yet he struggled, unable to “grasp the concept of American aesthetics and the verbiage to convey the complex ideas in my mind.” He credits his senior-year instructor, Ann Marie Conrado, for his breakthrough, which led to the 2007 IDSA (Industrial Designers Society of America) Midwest District Merit Award and, in 2008, an IDEA (Industrial Design Excellence Award). A job offer followed, from Bresslergroup, a Philadelphia design consultancy, where for two years he developed brand-name household and medical products.

In 2009, he went back to school, at the renowned Umea Institute of Design, in Sweden, where he earned his master’s in Advanced Product Design. His thesis, “LEPSIS: The Art of Growing Grasshoppers,” an innovative kitchen appliance optimized for neatly breeding grasshoppers and turning them into food, was the expression of his “immersion in the reality he sought to change” and of his desire to design products to “solve problems unconventionally and beautifully,” even those as daunting as global warming and world hungerthe latter for him particularly resonant. As a young child, Mr. Ourasanah was one of the two billion people around the globe who consume insects to supplement their protein-deficient diets. Born in Tchamba, a tiny village in Togo”the type of place civilization seems to avoid”he remembers “scavenging for grasshoppers and crickets on days when we didn’t have enough to eat.” LEPSIS was a runner-up for the coveted INDEX: Design to Improve Life Award.

Currently a senior designer at Whirlpool’s Advanced Studio in Chicago, Mr. Ourasanah’s work has been featured on CNN and in such publications as Fast Company, Wired, Gizomodo, Engadget, Popular Science, and The Guardian. His future goal is “to own a studio in New York where I can design products that improve our human experiences and challenge our sustainability paradigm.” He also hopes “to inspire poor kids around the world to change their reality and make a difference through artistic endeavors.” 

Photo credit Andreas Nilsson 

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Design

Quilian Riano

On a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Quilian Riano, then a young man in the U.S. Air Force, had been assigned to help the Red Horse Team, the USAF’s engineering corps; their job, to provide drinking water and roads in areas that lacked the most basic infrastructure. The reservation was near Rapid City and the Ellsworth Air Force Base, but a long way from Mr. Riano’s home in Hialeah, Florida, and farther still from his birthplace in Bogota, Colombia. Yet he made a profound connection while working with members of the Sioux nation and the Air Force team.“ In short, my experience in South Dakota would become an inspiration to my decision to go back to Florida and study design.”

Upon his discharge, he enrolled as an architecture and design undergraduate at the University of Florida, in 2001, his interest in the participatory design processes that tackle political inequality fully awakened.  He was already imagining “how thoughtful design could improve the urban context of working and low-income-class communities, those often forgotten by the mainstream,” an interest born of his early years living in the Latino working-class community of Hialeah, where he had immigrated with his mother and sister. 

Mr. Riano graduated with a Bachelor of Design, summa cum laude, from the University of Florida, School of Architecture, and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He supplemented his formal education with hands-on experience, working in low-income communities in northern Florida and in New Mexico. But it was his collaboration with artist Teddy Cruz on the La Prusia project, in a low-income community in Granada, Nicaragua, that shifted how Mr. Riano thought about participatory processes, “how participation can go beyond a token action during design and become an integral part of a flexible design that changes over time.” In clarifying his vision, Mr. Riano realized it had “to straddle…design, art, community organizing, and activism.” The inspirations for and challenges to that vision came together for him on a postgraduation trip to his homeland. Observing its social, economic, and political problems through now-trained eyes led him to address all three in the design of a fifty-family cooperative housing project in Facatativa, Colombia. The trip also inspired a research journalism project investigating an effort to remove and relocate low-income inhabitants from the largest port city in the country, with a majority Afro-Colombian population.

In 2009, Mr. Riano founded his firm, DSGN AGNC (Design Agency), with critical activism its guiding tenet, a concept he defines as the process of “continuously assessing the political landscape of each project and working with vulnerable populations to remove injustices and resolve problems that threaten their well-being.” Illustrative of the concept in practice is the Corona Plaza Engagement Project, now underway, commissioned by the Queens Museum. Mr. Riano also launched #whOWNSpace, a project inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement “as a way to advocate for and produce urban spaces that are truly public.”

Mr. Riano’s work has been exhibited widely, at the Venice Biennale, Harvard and Cornell Universities, New York’s Center for Architecture, among many others, and has been recognized by awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects, Harvard University, and the Boston Society of Architects. He also makes time to teach, currently at Parsons, The New School of Design.

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  • Vilcek Prizes Gala

    Browse photos from the Vilcek Foundation Awards Gala, honoring the recipients of the 2014 Vilcek Prizes.