2015 Vilcek Prize Recipients

Prize Recipients

2015 Vilcek Dropdown Arrows

The Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science

Peter Walter, Ph.D.

The aura of prestige that suffuses the storied accomplishments of prominent scientists often obscures the paths they followed to the heights of their profession.  For immigrant scientists, in particular, personal histories often reveal the motivations behind the decision to face dislocation in the pursuit of lofty goals.  Peter Walter’s path to the pinnacle of cell biology began as a quest to learn English, whose mastery favors success in science.  Walter’s move from his native Germany to the United States marks a watershed moment in a career spanning nearly four decades and committed to uncovering basic insights on cell function.  Walter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at the University of California, San Francisco, has discovered mechanisms that govern the movement of proteins within cells and enable cells to adapt to a range of conditions.

Born in West Berlin during the Cold War era, Walter nursed a love of chemistry from a young age, thanks to adventures in his father’s drugstore, stocked with chemicals that stoked his curiosity.  Years later, he entered the Free University in Berlin to study chemistry.  Before long, he realized that a successful scientific career hinged on facility with the English language, which he decided to master through a nine-month-long sojourn in the United States before returning to a life of research in Germany.

Exchange fellowship in hand, Walter arrived at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  Nashville in the 1970s was a far cry from his native West Berlin, a city whose wealth of cultural offerings was surpassed by only few other Western metropolises.  But as he learned to independently perform experiments in organic chemistry in the lab of Vanderbilt researcher Thomas Harris, Walter was charmed by the scientific culture in the United States, where inquiry is emphasized over knowledge.

On the advice of Stanford Moore, a Rockefeller University biochemist whom he chanced upon at Vanderbilt, Walter applied to the graduate program at Rockefeller, joining the lab of Günter Blobel in 1973—a move that marked the beginning of Walter’s association with the international world of cell biology.  By then, Blobel had set much of the stage for Walter’s career-shaping contributions, several of which figured prominently in work that earned Blobel the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

When Walter arrived in Blobel’s lab as a fresh-faced apprentice, Blobel and his colleagues had limned the outlines of the so-called signal hypothesis, which purported to explain how proteins, which are made in cellular machines called ribosomes, find their pre-destined locations within cells.  Like the parts of an edifice that must be moved from their site of manufacture to their proper place in the final design, proteins must be transported to the correct cellular compartments to ensure the smooth functioning of cells.  The signal hypothesis held that proteins carry address tags that are somehow decoded by cells to ensure their safe passage to their final destinations. 

Over the six years he spent at Rockefeller, Walter helped uncover parts of a cellular apparatus that ensures the transit of proteins through the endoplasmic reticulum, or ER, a way station composed of a winding network of tubes where many proteins are sorted and processed before being shipped to their target sites.  Walter isolated the six building blocks of the apparatus and dubbed it the signal recognition particle; by the early 1980s, he had demonstrated that the apparatus recruits ribosomes to the ER, latches onto address tags on proteins minted on ribosomes, and transfers proteins to the interior of the ER.

The following years witnessed a wealth of studies that revealed the molecular mechanics of the signal recognition particle, illustrating how human diseases might result from faulty protein transport and how disease-causing viruses commandeer human cells to serve as virus factories, among other findings.  For these crystalline insights into protein transport, Walter was offered an assistant professorship at the University of California, San Francisco, which he accepted in 1983. 

At USCF, Walter began the work that might prove to be his enduring legacy—the discovery of a key element in a quality control mechanism that cells deploy to deal with stress related to the buildup of misfolded proteins in the ER.  Discovered in the late 1970s, the mechanism, called the unfolded protein response, relies on communication between the ER and the cell nucleus: When misfolded proteins, which can cause stress-related diseases, accumulate in the ER, cells counter the surge by triggering a program of gene expression in the nucleus that raises the abundance of ER proteins that foster protein folding and activates a mechanism that degrades protein clumps.  Walter’s discovery of a crucial player in this regulatory process—a membrane-spanning enzyme called Ire1—was the first of a series of masterstrokes that helped answer the elementary question of how the ER signals stress to the nucleus.

The discovery eventually led to the uncovering by others of two additional signaling pathways in mammalian cells that, together with Ire1, help maintain equilibrium in the face of stress, averting a host of diseases.  (Contemporaneously, Kyoto University molecular biologist Kazutoshi Mori discovered the role of Ire1, furnishing complementary pieces in the daunting puzzle of the unfolded protein response.)  So fundamental are Walter’s findings that the work has earned him and Mori nearly every major accolade known to biologists, including the 2009 Gairdner International Award, the 2014 Shaw Prize, and the 2014 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

So it is hardly surprising that Walter’s farsighted work on the unfolded protein response has an array of potential medical applications.  Because improperly folded proteins burden cells and hamper their function, they are implicated in many inherited human diseases, including certain forms of elevated cholesterol, cystic fibrosis, retinitis pigmentosa, and multiple myeloma, a cancer of immune cells marked by the buildup of antibodies in the ER.  Walter’s team has also found that the unfolded protein response influences memory consolidation in rodents, suggesting a role in human cognitive impairment.  Together with colleagues at leading biotechnology firms, Walter now hopes to convert his basic research findings into drugs for such conditions.

Like his scientific work, whose impact extends beyond national borders, Walter’s personal and professional lives are decidedly international.  “My wife is Mexican; each of our children carries three passports and speaks three languages.  And my lab has people from South America, Europe, and Asia.  People who are willing to uproot their lives and move to a different country—even for a limited amount of time—for discovery are making an incredible commitment,” he says.

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The Vilcek Prize in Fashion

Andrew Bolton

Responsible for one of the most highly attended exhibitions in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2011’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty), Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton brings to his work an enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that has aided in dispelling long-held views by some critics that fashion does not belong in the Met.  Since joining the museum in 2002, he has curated 13 exhibitions (some in collaboration with Costume Institute Curator in Charge Harold Koda), often incorporating aspects of subcultural style, such as in 2006’s AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion and 2013’s Punk: Chaos to Couture.

Born and raised in a small town in Lancashire in northern England, he began his personal dialogue with culture and subcultures through punk—though too young to actively participate in it, he was fascinated with the music and style and followed it through the pages of London magazines.  An interest in cultural studies led Bolton to major in anthropology at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich.  After graduation he spent a year traveling through Australia and the Far East before returning to the U.K. with a full scholarship for a master’s degree in non-Western art at his alma mater.  After a brief period at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, he joined the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as a curatorial assistant and spent eight years in the East Asian department.  Always keen to interweave clothing into the discussion of culture and to explore larger ideas of the psychology of clothes, Bolton began to collect the work of Asian and Asian-American designers for the department.  In 1999 he transferred to the costume department as a research associate in contemporary fashion, which allowed him to start mounting his own exhibitions.  He was also a senior research fellow in Contemporary Fashion at the London College of Fashion and Victoria & Albert Museum from 1999 to 2002—where he curated two exhibitions in 2000.

During a visit to New York in 2002, the Malaysian-American designer Yeohlee Teng (whose work he had exhibited at the V&A) introduced Bolton to Harold Koda.  Several weeks later, Koda offered him the job of associate curator, as he had been impressed with Andrew’s academic history and openness to new ideas.  Though Bolton had long considered working at the Costume Institute his dream job, he never expected to be asked to join at age 35—he recalls having some fears that he lacked experience, but “jumped at the chance” to move to New York and begin working at the Met.  The change from working in a design museum (the V&A) to an art museum (the Met) also meant a shift in how clothes were perceived within those institutions, and therefore in his curatorial work.  Bolton’s work at the V&A was primarily about “engaging with the wider design aspect of fashion and its cultural implications,” while at the Costume Institute there is greater emphasis on the aesthetic beauty and “artistry of fashion.”  According to Bolton, this different engagement with garments was “incredibly freeing, not to be bogged down with fashion theory or cultural context, but just to see these objects as objects of beauty and to focus on their artistic relevance and artistic integrity.”  Regardless, Bolton’s anthropology background and time at the V&A continued to inform his work as his exhibitions often “explore a wider theme through fashion,” he says.  This ability to blend both approaches to fashion curation has helped Bolton bring to the general public a greater understanding of the multiple elements at work in fashion, from the cultural and social history of a garment to the technical construction details.

Since 2006, Bolton has been curator at the Costume Institute, which has provided him with greater autonomy to produce culturally relevant yet beautiful exhibitions.  Interested in enhancing the accessibility of fashion at the same time as reinforcing the importance of it as an art form, Bolton’s curatorial work draws on ideas of spectacle (working closely with exhibition designers to create striking installations) but also supported by a backbone of critical and academic rigor.  Known for curating visually striking and spellbinding displays, Bolton explains: “I think that the most successful exhibitions we do here are the ones when you walk into a space and you read what the thesis is visually.  If you want to go into greater detail you can read the label text or the panel text, but I think the visual stimulation has to be paramount.  If you can’t seduce your audience visually, it’s very hard to seduce them any other way.”

Calling his winning of the Vilcek Prize for the Arts an “extraordinary honor,” Bolton humbly recounts: “You never really realize that the work you do has an effect on people … When you work on an exhibition you hope that it has some not just educational aspect but changes how people view that particular subject, so it has been incredibly heartwarming to realize that the work I’ve done here, with the team that I work with, has had such an effect and such appreciation.”  Prior awards have included the Best Design Show Award 2007 from the International Association of Art Critics for his exhibition on Paul Poiret, and the AIGA Design Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award for Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy catalogue (2009).  He has contributed to over a dozen catalogues and publications, including providing the text for Anna Sui, the retrospective book of Chinese-American designer Anna Sui’s career (2010).  Andrew Bolton believes the opportunities and successes he has met with since moving to the United States are directly connected to the optimism and open-mindedness he has found here.  The combination of his brilliant academic and analytical mind, deep understanding of beauty, and openness to new experiences has pushed Bolton to the forefront of fashion curation—where he will remain as he continues to produce thought-provoking and mesmerizing exhibitions that vividly show the validity of fashion as an art form.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Sun Hur, Ph.D.

Self-discovery is a theme that unites Sun Hur’s life and work.  Growing up with a passion for physics, Hur pursued a scientific career in chemistry before launching her own research group in biology.  Today, Hur, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, uses her considerable intellectual gifts to uncover how the immune system distinguishes self from non-self.  Her work bears implications for the treatment of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Hur’s foray into science began at home in Seoul, South Korea: Her father, an electronics engineer, was a guiding influence in her childhood, emphasizing problem solving over passive learning.  Her mother forsook a career as a chemist to help provide a nurturing home for her children.  From a young age, Hur was intrigued by order and chaos, and it was perhaps this early predilection that led to a lasting obsession with patterns observed in nature and artifice.  While studying physics in college, she learned that mathematical rules can describe natural phenomena; while painting still life in her studio, she realized that stories often shape the ostensibly random arrangement of objects in a scene.

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physics at Seoul’s Ehwa Womans University, a private women’s university, Hur became enchanted with biological systems, which often resist elegant mathematical formulation.  To explore her interest in biology, she moved to the United States in 2000 for an undergraduate summer research program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and an exchange program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she completed her undergraduate degree. 

Braving culture shock and a formidable language barrier, Hur joined the lab of Santa Barbara organic chemist Thomas Bruice, known for his work on the computational analysis of enzyme reactions.  The experience offered an opportunity to use theory to interpret experiments and marked a step toward a biological research career.  “Back in Korea, I was doing a lot of programming in the applied mathematics department, so I was familiar with computers,” she says.    Before long, she enrolled for a PhD with Bruice, exploring the molecular mechanisms of enzyme reactions.  In particular, Hur’s computational studies helped settle a long-standing question over whether all enzymes catalyze reactions by stabilizing a chemical intermediate called the “transition state,” which appears during the conversion of reactants into products.  Her PhD work, completed in just two years, uncovered several examples to the contrary.  “That was something that the field did not expect,” she says. 

Despite her substantial contributions to enzymology, Hur felt an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with purely theoretical work, which relied on others’ experimental data.  So she began a postdoctoral fellowship in experimental enzymology with University of California, San Francisco, structural biologist Robert Stroud.  There, she used X-ray crystallography to unravel the molecular structure of an enzyme that modifies a key player in protein synthesis in all cells.  Computational simulation of the structure provided clues to the exquisite specificity with which the enzyme recognizes its substrates, solving a mystery that had perplexed enzymologists.

The focus of Hur’s work in Stroud’s lab—RNA molecules found in some pathogenic viruses—heralded a new phase in her career and defined her research specialty for the coming years.  So when she launched her own lab as a 29-year-old assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in 2008, she continued to study RNA—but with the clear goal of performing clinically relevant research.  She explored how the innate immune system of animals recognizes invaders, in particular disease-causing viruses that generate a double-stranded RNA during replication.  Because double-stranded viral RNA is typically longer than that naturally found in cells, Hur surmised that a mechanism that uses length to distinguish between viral and cellular RNA might underlie the immune system’s discriminatory power. 

Through biochemical, structural, and computational studies, Hur showed that one member of a previously discovered group of proteins called pattern recognition receptors, which recognize consistent molecular designs in pathogens, might indeed act as a ruler, measuring the length of double-stranded RNA to divine its source.  The protein, called MDA5, assembles into a filament along the length of the RNA in question, allowing it to size up the suspect.  If the RNA is deemed to be of viral origin, the protein triggers the appropriate defense mechanism to dispatch the virus.  (A related protein called RIG-I, Hur found, uses a different mechanism of RNA detection and, hence, may target distinct viruses.) 

Further studies revealed that genetic mutations in MDA5 can lead to its malfunction, locking the molecule in its filamentous state longer than usual and setting off runaway immune reactions that can damage cells.  “What we found is that the mutations confuse the MDA5 protein, and the self-RNA is recognized by the mutant MDA5 as non-self,” Hur says.  The result is a rare inflammatory disorder called Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome, whose symptoms include intellectual disability.  “We’re following up on this work by asking if there are specific [cellular] RNA molecules that stimulate the MDA5 signaling,” she adds.  Pursuing the therapeutic implications of that possibility, Hur has teamed up with a pharmaceutical firm to find drugs that can suppress aberrant signaling by MDA5.

The clinical impact of Hur’s work may extend beyond inflammatory disorders.  Hur is now exploring ways to use genetic engineering to target gene fusion events that underlie some cancers.  (Chronic myeloid leukemia, a deadly blood cancer, for example, is caused when two chromosomes in white blood cells exchange fragments, resulting in a hapless fusion of genes that are normally kept apart.)  By engineering an artificial protein that targets the product of such potentially cancer-causing gene fusions, Hur hopes to trigger immune defense mechanisms that kill rogue cells harboring the fusions.

Hur’s scientific promise has been previously recognized; she has earned a Pew Scholarship in Biomedical Science and a New Investigator Award from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.  She ascribes her early success and continuing rise to the willingness of her mentors to welcome a relative novice into their labs and nurture her nascent scientific career.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Rob Knight, Ph.D.

The word “microbiome” appears so often in biologists’ current vocabulary, virtually every aspect of human biology seems to bear a viable link to it.  The complement of microbes that compose an ecosystem, from the human body’s smallest nook to the world’s largest ocean, microbiomes have become a focus of fervent scientific interest.  Rob Knight has stood at the forefront of this prolific field since its infancy, greatly contributing to its growing momentum.  From his perch at the crossroads of informatics, evolution, and ecology, Knight, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, commands a comprehensive view of microbes and their interplay with humans and the environment.  He has helped generate and interpret mountains of data through microbial gene sequencing efforts, showing how microbes influence human well-being.

Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, during the 1970s, Knight was a naturally inquisitive boy who took pleasure in the popular childhood delights of beachcombing, rock hunting, and video games.  While at elementary school, he became enchanted with basic computer programming, and an introductory college course in Pascal solidified his interest in computer science.  Unsure of his career path but eager to combine his love of computing with curiosity about the natural world, Knight pursued a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Otago.  But it wasn’t until he began graduate studies in the United States that he used his studiously practiced programming skills to solve biological puzzles. 

Knight’s move to the United States in 1996 was prompted by an encounter with Princeton University geneticist Lee Silver a year earlier.  Silver suggested that Knight apply to Princeton’s PhD program to explore the use of genetic engineering to control rodent pests.  But after a year in Silver’s lab, Knight’s attempts were revealed to be in vain when other researchers disproved one underlying premise of Silver’s model of the experimental system Knight intended to use.  So Knight transferred to the lab of Princeton evolutionary biologist Laura Landweber, with whom he studied the mechanics and evolution of the genetic code—a virtual manual for the formation of proteins, the building blocks of cells, from DNA, cells’ genetic blueprint. 

Armed with expertise in bioinformatics, Knight began a postdoctoral fellowship with Boulder molecular biologist Michael Yarus in 2001, developing software to explore how the sequence of letters in RNA, a molecular relative of DNA that facilitates protein synthesis, determines its structure and function.  While at Boulder, Knight met molecular biologist Norman Pace, who was by then widely recognized for using RNA molecules to glean evolutionary relationships among organisms that thrive in assemblages in natural and man-made environments.  “[Norman] used the RNA not as an object of study in and of itself but as a way of reading out the microbial community.  So I started going to Norm’s lab meetings mostly out of my interest in understanding how to reconstruct large phylogenetic trees,” says Knight, referring to charts that depict evolutionary links between species.

Knight’s partnership with Pace spurred the development of software tools to characterize microbial communities.  In 2004, upon the urging of Yarus, Knight accepted a faculty position at what later became the BioFrontiers Institute at Boulder, and during the next decade, he assiduously applied these tools to an array of problems in biology.  Among the tools were a technique called barcoded pyrosequencing, which slashed the cost of DNA sequencing and speeded the parsing of microbial communities; a software program called UniFrac, which uses evolutionary history instead of arbitrary benchmarks to determine the precise grouping of organisms in a phylogenetic tree; and a software pipeline called QIIME, which enables the conversion of large sequencing data sets into meaningful evolutionary relationships among microbes.

In 2005, together with Washington University microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon and others, Knight used the tools to catalog the microbes that inhabit the intestines of lean and obese mice, in hopes of uncovering relationships between microbes and metabolic health.  His studies revealed that obesity is associated with the mix of intestinal microbes in mice.  To put these findings in perspective for people, Knight first created a map of the bacteria thriving in more than two dozen sites on the human body, including the gut, and showed how the map changed over time.  Before long, his team demonstrated through studies of lean and obese twins that human family members harbor similar mixes of gut microbes that can be altered by conditions like obesity.  Extending those findings, his team proved that diet-induced changes in gut microbial composition—and the attendant effects on weight and obesity—can be artificially transmitted between mice, raising therapeutic implications for people with metabolic disorders.

Knight’s goals for the analysis of gut microbes are nothing if not visionary, and his vision is evident in a crowdsourced initiative called American Gut, which he helped launch in 2013.  An anthropological survey of the human gut, the project is aimed at collecting gut microbe data from thousands of people, who are offered a glimpse of their intestinal ecosystems and a chance to further the cause of science in exchange for a fecal sample, responses to diet and lifestyle questionnaires, and a $99 donation.  “The main goal is to try to find out what kind of gut microbiomes are out there in the wild.  At this point, we’ve raised about a million dollars, almost all of it in $99 increments from members of the public,” says Knight, adding that the project’s ultimate value might lie in its vast stores of data, which can power rigorous clinical studies of links among diet, lifestyle, and gut microbes.

Knight’s analytical prowess has the potential, no doubt, to help monitor and improve people’s health, but he has also used his skills to offer a surprisingly precise postmortem view of the last moments of a person’s life.  Together with postdoctoral fellow Jessica Metcalf and others, Knight found that changes in the mix of bacteria found in and around decomposing lab mice can serve as a sort of clock to pinpoint the time of death to within three days—more than a month after death.  His team is now testing whether the technique might be used to help forensic examiners establish the time of a murder victim’s death; current methods use, for example, the life cycles of insects, which can be unreliable witnesses whose testimonies are often time-consuming to extract.  Though the routine use of a microbial clock in coroners’ investigations is not in the offing, Knight says the approach holds promise.  “The clock seems to work really well in humans just like it does in mice,” he adds, referring to unpublished field experiments at a forensic facility.

The scope of Knight’s efforts extends far beyond the intersection of humans and microbes.  So ambitious are his goals, he has set out to create an atlas of Earth’s microbial ecosystems, hoping to use QIIME to analyze more than 200,000 microbial samples from regions across the globe in a massive collaborative endeavor dubbed the Earth Microbiome Project.  The hope is to build a public repository of microbial genome sequences from different environments as well as tools that researchers can use to analyze sequence data, compare ecosystems, and develop ecological theories.

In a career spanning little over a decade, Knight has earned the recognition of his peers and forerunners in the field of microbiome research.  He has won a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist award, a Kavli Fellow award, and fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Knight says the United States offers an ideal setting for his brand of technology-driven research, partly because many of those methods, such as high-performance computing, DNA sequencing, and mass spectrometry, were developed in the U.S.  “A lot of those technologies are driven by research that happens here—even in cases where the instruments themselves are manufactured overseas,” he adds. “From a tech development perspective, I think the U.S. offers incomparable advantages.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Franziska Michor, Ph.D.

For many biomedical researchers, the lab bench and bedside are separated by a wide gulf that only years of trial and error can bridge.  But to Franziska Michor, theory and practice may denote a distinction without difference, so rapidly have her mathematical models been tested in clinical trials in hopes of improving treatment outcomes for cancer patients.  Michor, a professor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard School of Public Health, has used mathematical modeling to study the molecular subtleties of cancer progression and drug resistance.  Her models have led to unconventional cancer treatment regimens that are now being tested in patients.

Michor’s interest in mathematics can be traced back to a childhood in her native Vienna, Austria.  Growing up with a mathematician father who often held court with visiting colleagues over elaborate lunches at home, Michor was introduced to abstract concepts at an early age.  Meanwhile, her mother, a nurse, instilled in her the desire to pursue a career devoted to human betterment with empathetic accounts of her experiences with patients.  Guided by those twin instincts, Michor charted a customized academic course, pursuing undergraduate programs in mathematics and molecular biology at the University of Vienna.  But she soon realized that Austria offered few opportunities to stray from the beaten path.

To perform the kind of discipline-straddling work she desired, in 2002 she joined the evolutionary biology department at Harvard University as a graduate student.  There, Michor began studying the evolution of cancer, unraveling, for example, the time required for cancer cells to accumulate mutations in a class of genes that safeguard against cancer.  “That seemed like a very straightforward question but ... had actually never been addressed before, which is an example of why I was so excited to work in this area,” she says, alluding to the abundance of uncharted avenues in the quantitative analysis of cancer.

One such avenue, explored in partnership with oncologist Charles Sawyers, then at the University of California, Los Angeles, helped determine why some patients fail to improve despite short-term treatment with the cancer drug Gleevec, which targets a genetic mutation underlying chronic myeloid leukemia, a life-threatening blood cancer.  Because the drug’s mode of action was known and patients’ response to treatment could be precisely monitored, Michor and colleagues used modeling methods and data from patients in a large clinical trial to identify a group of copiously self-renewing stem cells, which persist within the tumor, resist the drug, and sustain the cancer.  “Gleevec reduces the differentiation rate of these cells so that the overall population of cancer cells decreases, but once you release the brake on the system, you have an almost explosive expansion of the cell population because of an increase of differentiation from the stem cells that persisted during treatment,” says Michor.  At the young age of 22, Michor earned a PhD from Harvard University, completing the program in less than three years, an accomplishment at once signaling drive, promise, and intellectual precocity. 

Buoyed by her early success, Michor moved in 2007 to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for an assistant professorship.  There, she used her modeling prowess to solve problems plaguing cancer treatment, focusing on a type of lung cancer, among others.  Together with oncologist William Pao, she uncovered differences in the growth dynamics of non-small cell lung cancer cells that are either resistant or susceptible to the targeted drug Tarceva.  The drug is given to a subset of lung cancer patients at a daily dose of 150 mg, but whether this dosing strategy was the best way to prolong survival had not been empirically tested.  So Michor set out to study this question using mathematical modeling.

Her model suggested that an alternative schedule for administering the drug—periodic spikes of high doses against a continuous backdrop of low doses—might delay resistance and improve the drug’s efficacy.  The findings, validated in cell culture studies in 2011, formed the basis of a clinical trial, launched at Sloan-Kettering in the fall of 2013.  If the trial is successful, it would demonstrate that drug resistance can be delayed by simply altering the regimen of existing drugs; results are expected later this year.  “[Current trials] are not optimized for slowing down evolution and maximally delaying the emergence of new variants within the cancer cell population that might lead to worse outcomes.  That’s exactly where mathematical modeling can help,” she says.

Michor’s efforts may also someday help brain tumor patients.  Since accepting an associate professorship at Dana-Farber in 2010, Michor has modeled the dynamics of a type of deadly brain tumor called proneural glioblastoma.  The standard treatment involves a six-week course of radiation given at a daily dose of 2 gray for five days each week.  Working with oncologist Eric Holland, Michor found that an alternative radiation schedule, which doubled the efficacy of each dose unit, prolonged the survival of mouse models of the cancer.  “We searched through all possible schedules ... and we found a schedule that looks random.  But it’s actually not random; it’s the schedule that is predicted to lead to the best possible outcome, given that we understand the rates at which these cells divide and die in response to radiation,” says Michor.  Plans for a pilot clinical trial are underway at Sloan-Kettering to test the logistical feasibility of administering this unconventional schedule. 

Michor’s efforts are driven by the courage to test approaches that defy convention.  Her prominence in the United States cancer research community is embodied in the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute-based Physical Science-Oncology Center, a collaborative, interdisciplinary endeavor that she has led since 2009, thanks to a competitive $11 million grant she received from the National Cancer Institute; at the center, researchers apply physical sciences to solve problems in cancer biology.  Because the willingness to embrace path-breaking research is embedded deep within the DNA of the American scientific community, says Michor, she finds herself at home in the United States: “What I love about the United States is that the people are not risk-averse.  In Europe, you have to be very convinced that something is going to work before you try it.  I am very grateful that I have collaborators who are willing to support me and help test my ideas in the clinic.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Fashion

Siki Im

Born in Cologne, Germany, to Korean immigrants, Siki Im felt a sense of displacement from an early age.  The divide between the Confucian ethics he was taught at home and the world around him led Im as a teenager to seek solace in art and music—playing in bands, writing poetry, and making art.  Intensely intrigued by subcultures, he began to analyze and juxtapose cultures “in a pursuit to better understand myself and [the] world around me,” he says, a practice that he has maintained throughout the subsequent years.

Im earned a scholarship to the Oxford School of Architecture, yet while there, his understanding of architecture reoriented away from buildings and toward space.  Influenced by the choreographer Merce Cunningham, artist Joseph Beuys, and theorists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Im centered his studies on the subjects of globalization, cultural theories, and sociology.  His dissertation combined these studies with analysis of his own heritage; he researched “the East-West German relationship post-Wall fall, explored the tension between North and South Korea, and investigated the Westernization of South Korea and the Americanization of Germany.”  He graduated from Oxford in 2001, then moved to New York City to work with architecture firm Archi-Tectonics.

For Im, living in the United States has allowed him to receive and embrace an abundance of opportunities, including a complete career change—from architecture to fashion—without having to return to school.  Finding the actual work of a practicing architect slow and often uninspiring, Im began to question his career path.  He never thought of pursuing fashion design as a career until he was introduced to David Vandewal, a stylist and the vice president of design at Club Monaco, who was looking for a new assistant and was intrigued by Im’s personal style.  Im went to work with him and began designing menswear and womenswear.  He took some evening classes for patternmaking and draping and studied construction and technical aspects of design at home.  Vandewal helped Im land a job as a designer at Karl Lagerfeld; he then became the main designer for both the men’s and women’s lines at Helmut Lang.

In 2009, Im founded his eponymous line of luxury menswear.  “I wanted to build an environment where culture took priority—where culture influenced the work environment, the decision making, and ultimately the product design and consumers it reached,” he says.  Carried in Barneys and other high-end boutiques worldwide, SIKI IM is produced completely in the United States.  While not explicitly designed to be unisex, the menswear line has an appeal that transcends gender; it is ordered by some womenswear buyers whose clients relish the effortless androgyny of Im’s designs.  He plans to expand into womenswear in the near future.  In 2013 he launched an extension line, DEN IM, which is composed of utilitarian basics including jeans, sweatshirts, and T-shirts.  Due to the more democratic price point and more approachable style, DEN IM has been very successful—and has freed up Im intellectually to explore his ideas for the main collection more deeply. 

According to the designer, each collection is approached as an anthropological analysis, based in research and theory.  Taking as his starting point a news article, book, movie, or even a memory, once the idea “ignites or evokes a certain emotion, then I start researching, going deeper,” he says.  For Im, the research process is an activity that compels him; the learning and discovery motivates and moves him forward to the next season.  While he provides text to accompany each collection (often with quotes from his favorite theorists), Im feels that the clothes stand for themselves and that it is not necessary for anyone to know the backstory of the pieces.  Instead, what is most important is for the wearer to feel a certain emotion.  “Fashion is not just about clothes,” Im says.  “As architecture is also about intangible space, fashion also explores intangible notions such as psychology, politics, gender, image, and culture.  For me, fashion is to aspire and inspire people: giving people security, comfort, strength, emotions, and maybe even hope.”  Themes he has explored include immigrants and xenophobia in Europe (‘Isolation/Integration’, SS11), Germany in the 1970s (FW14), Orthodox Christians and Sufis (SS12), Navajo Indians (FW11), and the book Lord of the Flies (SS10).

As he describes it, Im’s goal is for the company to be “a design studio where we approach different languages of design, not just fashion—a full creative cultural studio.”  Im continues to make music, which he sees as an extension of this cohesive exploration of art and design.  This multidimensional approach to design figured in the showcase he produced for the Arnhem Mode Biennale.  Instead of showing his clothing designs, he created a “pavilion” with the help of the architecture firm he worked for.  Based on the pattern pieces of his blazer, these were folded to create an origami-like space with no start or end.  With the pavilion made of a fabric-like material, Im also created a soundscape to enhance the sensory experience.  This intellectual vision helped him win the 2010 Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award for Best New Menswear and the Samsung Design & Fashion Fund Award in 2011.

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Fashion

Natallia Pilipenka

Ukrainian Natallia Pilipenka grew up in Soviet Belarus.  As the daughter of food equipment engineers who first worked in a bread factory and later taught at the Molodecho State Polytechnic College, Pilipenka lived with her parents and siblings in three rooms of a large dormitory in a former barracks.  Her parents earned extra money at night sewing and knitting, which enabled them to provide their three children with the necessities, as well as books and art supplies.  From a very young age, Pilipenka loved painting and creating paper dolls for her younger sister.  Fascinated by watching her parents sew, knit, crochet, and embroider, by age 11 she had knitted her first sweater on a knitting machine, embroidered it by hand, and worn it to school.  In spite of the fact that while she was growing up in the USSR, the Western concept of “fashion” was not known to her, Pilipenka had a deep interest in clothes and their design, but given that at the time, fashion design studies were taught only on a technical manufacturing and construction level, Pilipenka decided instead to pursue a degree in foreign languages and economics at university in Belarus.  There, she participated in the Camp America exchange summer work program—which provided her with round-trip airfare to the United States and gave her job placement at a camp in Maine; the first summer she worked as a dishwasher and server, and she returned for the next three years, moving up to kitchen manager.  In 2001 she made the decision to move to New York City. 

Once in New York, Pilipenka decided to pursue her long-developing dream of becoming a fashion designer and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She studied fashion design at night and on weekends while working a full-time job at a construction company office.  After two exhausting years, she graduated with an associate degree in fashion design.  Pilipenka then went on to gain her BFA, summa cum laude, also from FIT; an ensemble from her graduate collection appeared on the cover of WWD in 2007.   She then created two collections, one sponsored by YKK as part of Arts of Fashion Symposium in San Francisco in November 2008.  In 2010, Pilipenka won the Fashion Group International’s Emerging Designers Competition (South Florida region) with her fall collection titled “Children of the Dark,” which incorporated a variety of craft techniques including knitting, quilting, and macramé.  While pursuing freelance design work, Pilipenka landed a part-time teaching position in the BFA program at Parsons the New School for Design.

Pilipenka decided to pursue a master’s degree in Parsons’ Fashion Design and Society program to gain a better understanding of her identity as a designer.  The program is an interdisciplinary academy that “broadens students' understanding of fashion in context” through intensive studio-based projects and design research.[i]  Attending this program helped Pilipenka to “re-realize who I am as a designer … For me fashion was always something much larger—more of a culture … It’s the same level as art in terms of how it brings people together, how it influences people, how it can push things forward,” she says.  “The MFA Fashion Design and Society program represents fashion in that sense—even though there is a part where it is just clothing, but at the same time it is something larger than that, larger than clothing; it’s everything around us that can become fashion and feeds into fashion.” 

The program provides students with the space to truly experience the fashion design process within a holistic analysis of culture—often taking a more conceptual approach, the students develop collections that seek to transcend normal constraints of the fashion design and production process.  Drawing from the skills she learned from her parents, Pilipenka says that in her designs now, “there is always an element of craft or the hand in it.  I always try to apply those crafts but make them look modern and desirable.”  Heavily tactile, Pilipenka works with a mixture of textures, materials, and techniques to create garments that call for closer examination by eyes and hands.  Her close connection and understanding of textiles and fibers led her to win the Umbria Cashmere District Award, which provided her with a sponsored trip to Italy to work with a factory to produce fine-gauge knitwear garments for her final thesis collection.  Starting with the concept of “removal” within her own identity and in the work of artists and writers (particularly Rauschenberg and Mallarmé), and how this “highlights” what is left behind, Pilipenka began to explore different forms of deconstruction in the arts.  This inpires “Erased,” her MFA thesis collection, which paired cashmere sweater-dresses with perfectly tailored shirts and dévoré garments, in a palette of smoky grays, black, and white, and layered textures in draped, sculptural shapes.  “The MFA program is based so much on research, so it allowed me to work with textiles and delve really deep into what interested me.” 

Pilipenka graduated with her MFA from Parsons in June 2014.  Her own line is currently on hold, as is teaching, while she gains more experience designing for other fashion companies, and she is open to new opportunities to work on special projects.  By taking advantage of the education and work opportunities available to her in New York, Pilipenka has developed a strong sense of herself as a designer.  In her application, she wrote: “Ever since I came to NYC and made the decision to pursue my dream, I have been doing something I really love, and have enjoyed every single bit of the hard work involved.”

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The Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Fashion

Tuyen Tran

Twenty-two-year-old Tuyen Tran was born in Vietnam, but shortly after her birth, she immigrated with her family to Twin Falls, Idaho.  Alongside her two siblings, Tran was raised to assimilate into American life.  “My family's concerns of fitting in often took the form of sentimental expressions: My mother greeted new neighbors with gifts of Vietnamese food, my sister painted landscapes of scenic Idaho for art class, and my brother wrote stories that charmed his English teacher,” she says.  Actively engaged in the arts during high school, she began researching fashion and design and discovered how limited the resources were in Idaho to produce quality clothes—and decided that after graduation she would move to New York to study fashion design at Parsons the New School for Design, which she did in 2010. 

Looking back, Tran now finds her childhood goals of trying to fit in are in marked contrast to the world of fashion, where the importance is placed on differentiating oneself.  Connecting with the arts and fashion as a teenager allowed Tran to embrace the differentness of her Vietnamese and immigrant background.  In her first two years at Parsons, she found her career goals shifted from simply creating beautiful pieces to focusing more on the process of physically making garments, which in turn inspired her to also shift from womenswear to the more technically informed area of menswear.   While in school, she interned with several New York brands, including Tim Coppens and Helmut Lang, learning different aspects of tailoring and production.  Intrigued by minimal and functional styles, Tuyen Tran also looked to her heritage and studied traditional Eastern Asian garments for their simple, fluid shapes that were often also sustainable by necessity.

A friend’s illness in 2013 pushed Tran to re-evaluate the imbalance between the glamorous world of fashion and the physical reality of her day-to-day life; she pared her own wardrobe down to basics, which led, she says, to “a labor-intensive process of research into work wear, handcraft, and pure fibers that lend to comfort and longevity.”   At Parsons she found herself attracted to other disciplines—product design and architecture, in particular—that she felt were more substantial and useful.  Re-approaching her fashion design work, Tran started to see fashion as a form of functional product design: enabling movement, adapting to different environments, and, most importantly, potentially enhancing the wearer’s happiness.  This new philosophical direction helped her work place in the Joe’s Black Book 2013 competition and win the 2013 Samsung Fashion and Design scholarship.

Returning to womenswear in her final year of school, Tran sought to combine menswear tailoring techniques with a fastidious attention to detail in order to define her perfect shirt, jacket, pants, and dress.  This exquisite capsule collection became the basis of her thesis: “an ode to identity and the way clothing informs our roles in life.”  She describes her thesis project, “Assemble,” as “a collection of functional garments with pockets, adjustable straps, and tailored waistbands that can grow with the wearer over time; and is a wardrobe of practical components for the different roles we play in life as we strive to achieve the balance between protection and expression, and being part of a greater assembly, and being ourselves.”  Her childhood in Idaho was influential on this collection, as it had allowed her to meet people without judging them on their clothes or status: “I got to see people as characters in my everyday life and that really influenced how I later started to design for characters…”  The collection centers on four types—the scholar, the artist, the traveler, and the socialite—whose method of wearing and using the functional garments is individual to their personalities and careers.  “Assemble” was nominated for the Parsons Designer of the Year award, included in the Fashion Benefit runway show, displayed at Saks Fifth Avenue, featured on the front page of style.com, and photographed and filmed for OdalisqueDrop, and other publications and productions.

Eager to gain more experience and knowledge of the industry, Tran recently joined the roster of CFDA+ recipients and is currently freelancing.  Tran says her ultimate goal is to “introduce the concept of luxury as an accessible joy to all through great clothes that last a lifetime, in order to enable the people who wear them, for a lifetime.”

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  • Vilcek Prizes Gala

    Browse photos from the Vilcek Foundation Awards Gala, honoring the recipients of the 2015 Vilcek Prizes.