The New York Academy of Sciences has selected two New York University researchers for its 2012 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists: Assaf Naor, a professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and Robert Johnston, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Biology Professor Claude Desplan.
The Blavatnik Awards recognize innovative, impactful, and interdisciplinary accomplishments of researchers under the age of 42 in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. Faculty winners receive $25,000 and postdoctoral winners receive $15,000. The five postdoctoral winners, four faculty winners, and two faculty finalists were selected from more than 170 nominations. All prizes are awarded as unrestricted funds and are made possible by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
“Now in its sixth year, the New York Academy of Sciences is proud to recognize the most accomplished young scientists who are working to advance science and technology in the world’s greatest cluster of universities and academic medical centers,” said Academy President and CEO Ellis Rubinstein. “We are particularly thrilled with not just the volume, but the outstanding quality, of the applications this year.”
The Academy recognized Naor for “elucidating problems at the interface of mathematics and computer science.” His work focuses on metric spaces, which are abstract mathematical “universes” in which one can quantitatively measure the distance between any two points. These include distances measured in a three-dimensional world, in which the distance between points is simply the length of the line segment joining them, but encompass other areas as well. Metric spaces are also considered in Internet searches, where the distance between any two web sites is the minimum number of clicks required to pass from one site to another, as well as biology, where researchers measure the similarity between proteins, and in image processing, where one seeks to quantify the similarity between images.
Johnston was honored for “showing that stochastic variation in gene expression can lead to changes in cell fate during development.” Whereas developmental programs generally induce uniform or regionalized gene expression patterns to yield reproducible body plan outcomes, stochastic, or random, mechanisms are sometimes incorporated to diversify cell types, for example, in the nervous and immune systems. Johnston studies the development of the fruit fly retina as a model to understand the random expression of genes that trigger complex regulatory networks. He found a novel regulatory mechanism involving random repression and cross-talk between the two copies of a critical gene in eye development. He also delineated a complex gene regulatory network that describes how light-detecting proteins are controlled in all cell types in the retina.
This year’s winners will be celebrated at the Academy's ninth annual Science & the City Gala on Monday, November 12th, 2012. For more on the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, click here.