New Worlds: Young innovators get awards

The prestigious awards, each worth $100,000, recognize innovation and excellence of early career scientists and engineers.

By
January 21, 2018 02:13
4 minute read.
Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University. (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Two outstanding faculty members at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and one at Tel Aviv University have been chosen to receive the inaugural Blavatnik Awards for Young Israeli Scientists. The prestigious awards, each worth $100,000, recognize innovation and excellence of early career scientists and engineers.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation, the New York Academy of Sciences and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities recently announced the names of the three 2018 laureates: Dr. Oded Rechavi, a senior neurobiology lecturer at TAU (age at nomination 36); Technion assistant professor of chemistry Dr. Charles Diesendruck (age 37); and Technion electrical engineering associate professor Anat Levin (age 39), Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

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Established in the US in 2007, the Blavatnik Awards are a signature program of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, administered by the New York Academy of Sciences. Awarded in Israel for the first time – in collaboration with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, they are aimed at young Israeli scientists (under 42 years old). From 47 nominees, a distinguished national jury selected three outstanding laureates, one each from the disciplines of life sciences; chemistry; and physical sciences and engineering.

The selection committee in each of the three prize areas included scientific leaders from Israel and abroad. The Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in Israel will be honored at a formal ceremony in Jerusalem on February 4.

Rechavi’s groundbreaking work uncovers novel mechanisms of inheritance; he has shown how acquired traits can be passed to the next generation without changes to the DNA code. His studies can help us to understand how complex traits and diseases are inherited – a first step towards treatments for many diseases where genetic causes have not been identified.

Diesendruck is an expert in the growing field of mechanochemistry, in which mechanical force is used to drive chemical reactions or changes. Through these reactions, materials’ properties can be altered, creating smart mechanoresponsive materials.

Levin has made groundbreaking contributions to the emerging field of computational photography, which utilize computational techniques to develop novel imaging capabilities that overcome the limits of traditional optical (or other imaging) systems.

“These three exceptional young scientists and engineers exemplify the innovative spirit and remarkable scientific breadth of Israeli academic and research institutions,” said Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of access industries and head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation. “The work of these brilliant researchers will enhance science throughout the world for generations to come.”

Prof. Nili Cohen, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, noted, “The Blavatnik Awards fill the need for recognition and support of young scientists in Israel who demonstrate outstanding merit. The scientific evaluation committees had a challenging responsibility to identify the most exceptional scientific accomplishments among scores of outstanding young Israeli researchers.”

The laureates will join a network of their peers as members of the Blavatnik Science Scholars community, currently comprising over 220 Blavatnik Award honorees from the decade-old US program. Laureates will also be invited to attend the annual Blavatnik Science Symposium in New York City each summer, where the scholars come together to exchange new ideas and build cross-disciplinary research collaborations.

SELF-ESTEEM MAPPED IN THE HUMAN BRAIN
The amount of self-esteem that a person has can be mapped in the human brain, according to a research team at University College London that devised a mathematical equation that can explain how our self-esteem is shaped by what other people think of us.

The study, published recently in the scientific journal eLife, used the equation to identify signals in the human brain that explain why self-esteem rises and falls when we learn other people’s judgments of us. They say the findings could help identify people at risk of psychiatric disorders.

“Low self-esteem is a vulnerability factor for numerous psychiatric problems, including eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depression. In this study, we identified exactly what happens in the brain when self-esteem goes up and down,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Geert-Jan Will. “We hope that these findings inform our understanding of how mental health problems develop, which may ultimately improve diagnostic tools and treatments,” he said.

For the study, 40 healthy participants did a social evaluation task while in an MRI scanner. After uploading a profile to an online database, they received feedback, ostensibly given by 184 strangers (actually an algorithm), in the form of a thumbs-up (like) or thumbs-down (dislike). The “strangers” were in different groups so that participants learned to expect positive feedback from some groups of raters and negative feedback from other groups. After every two or three trials, participants reported on their self-esteem at that moment.

Participants expected to be liked by ‘strangers’ in the groups that mostly gave positive feedback, so when they received a thumbs-down from a person in that group, their self-esteem took a hit. These social prediction errors – the difference between expected and received feedback – were key for determining self-esteem.

“We found that self-esteem changes were guided not only by whether other people like you, but were especially dependent on whether you expected to be liked,” Will said.

“By combining our mathematical equation for self-esteem with brain scans in people as they found out whether other people liked them, we identified a possible marker for vulnerability to mental health problems. The authors are continuing their line of work by studying people with particularly low self-esteem, and plan to follow up by studying people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders.


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