Andy Dubbin

The future of science is strong. Science will make all of our lives better. But the world needs more scientists.

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That was the message of the first annual Blavatnik Symposium, an intimate lecture series held by the New York Academy of Sciences on July 9 and featuring past and future winners of the prestigious Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists.

The event was an all-star who's-who of North American faculty scientists age 42 or younger, across all scientific disciplines. It was also a tribute to the most information-dense Powerpoint presentations ever assembled in human history.

SEVEN PLATES, THIRTY PANINIS

Every science lecture needs a metaphor. Surely the Blavatnik lecture series could use one, too.

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So, if each Blavatnik lecture was a panini sandwich, then the words "I'm incredibly honored to be chosen as a Blavatnik finalist" and "I’d like to thank my students for their hard work" were the crispy pieces of bread. These served as the customary openings and closings to presentations of each scientist's career magnum opus: A Powerpoint performed (by fiat) in under 15 minutes.

If, to continue with the panini theme, the Blavatnik Symposium consisted of many sandwiches, no two were exactly the same. The Blavatnik finalists cover a wide range of fascinating areas of scientific inquiry, from a uniting theory on the composition of the universe to modeling the complex microbiome in the human gut.

Unfortunately for those who attended, the Blavatnik Symposium served no actual paninis. But the food was pretty good.

A Great Day for Science

The day began with a series of presentations by previous Blavatnik Award winners. These "Alumni" lectures reinforced the context for the symposium itself: That prestigious awards like the Blavatnik invigorate young scientists, giving them the confidence and resources they need to pursue questions and subjects they may have previously considered out of reach.

Princeton General Relativity expert Frans Pretorius demonstrated this very rigor when he was sucked into his lecture on black holes in higher dimensions.

Like many of his fellow presenting scientists, his speech transcended space, time, and the time allotted.

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For the handful of scientific nonspecialists attending the event, nothing aroused more excitement than a lecture unit called "Basic Science." And what better way to introduce the "Basic Science" portion of this lecture series than with a talk on the quipucamayocs of ubiquitin?

From there, no single lecturer failed to deliver on the promise of increased scientific complexity.

Even Greater Complexity

"Emerging Technologies" presented a series of novel ideas and methods such as three-dimensional structures that self-assemble from DNA "bricks," a novel method for studying molecules in living cells, or holistic circuits that push the limits of Moore's Law.

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A unit on "Bugs" highlighted interdisciplinary efforts that hack through epidemics such as malaria and Autism Spectrum Disorder, and a lab at the cutting edge of understanding bacterial communication. The "Modeling" session highlighted three ambitious projects: One tracking the complex, fast-food addled microbiome that is the "American Gut," another tackling the eternal battle for evolutionary dominance between hosts and viruses, and a third building species distribution models that help quantify the ongoing impact of climate change.

The final lecture unit covered "Energy," a precious resource that fuels the world as much as it fuels the world's geopolitical conflicts. Here, the 2014 Blavatnik finalists demonstrated an impressive ability to imagine higher-functioning energy production and more efficient energy consumption.

One such project—in which scientists were able to lower the known threshold for thermal conductivity of solid materials by attaching to a carbon tail to a buckyball—demonstrates that some of these technologies still have a way to go to achieve their long-term goals.

(Buckyball illustration by Dan Ashwood)
Unprecedented Potential for Genius

Beyond the individual talents of each presenter, the Blavatnik Symposium highlighted that with unprecedented access to scholarship online and expanding university infrastructure for graduate-level research, cross-pollination between scientific disciplines is more possible than ever.

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With those systems in place, institutions like the Blavatnik Awards provide important support through recognition.

As 2012 Blavatnik regional winner Dr. Nicholas Stavropoulos explained, "It's a huge boost for a young scientist. To feel like someone has not only recognized what you’ve done… but that they are also investing in your future."

Andy is a graphics editor and cartoonist at Fusion.