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Left to right: Marin Soljačić, Rachel Wilson, and Adam Cohen

Left to right: Marin Soljačić, Rachel Wilson, and Adam Cohen

Courtesy of the Blavatnik Family Foundation

Three win inaugural Blavatnik prizes

Harvard University chemical biologist Adam Cohen uses light to answer some of neuroscience’s most pressing questions. He and his colleagues have found a promising way to optically measure brain activity down to the level of the individual neuron by engineering these nerve cells with proteins that glow whenever the cells fire.

But this week the spotlight is shining on him. Cohen is one of three researchers to win the inaugural Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, which seek to recognize America’s “most innovative young faculty-rank scientists and engineers” under the age of 43. He is joined by neurobiologist Rachel Wilson, also of Harvard, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Marin Soljačić.

Funded by the charitable foundation of industrialist Len Blavatnik, the newly launched national awards are a spinoff of the foundation’s longtime regional awards for young scientists. The $250,000 prize for each winner makes the awards the largest unrestricted prize to honor young scientists.

“Maybe the point here is not who won, but the fact that it's creating a platform for young scientists to share what a life in science is really like, and to encourage students and teachers of science to follow their passion,” Wilson said in a statement. Wilson’s award recognizes “her groundbreaking research on sensory processing and neural circuitry in the fruit fly,” according to the foundation, and Soljačić’s award honors him for his “numerous discoveries of novel phenomena related to the interaction of light and matter” and his studies of wireless power transfer.

Cohen co-founded Q-State Biosciences in order to commercialize his technology, which he hopes will also be useful to those working on the federally funded project known as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. “It’s pretty clear that the big problems aren’t going to be solved right away, and there’s still a lot of scope for creativity and innovation,” he says.