When the Stanford developmental biologist Roeland Nusse learned he had won a $3 million science prize, he realized he didn’t have anything to wear to the glitzy awards ceremony. So he opted to rent a tux.
He could have bought one, of course, with his windfall. But what would be the point? “I don’t see myself wearing a tuxedo too often,” Nusse told STAT.
Welcome to the culture clash that is the annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, an elaborately choreographed fete that’s billed as the Oscars of science because it lavishes researchers with a Hollywood treatment that takes them way out of their element. This year’s ceremony — hosted by the actor Morgan Freeman and featuring an actual red carpet and a performance from Alicia Keys — was held on Sunday night at a NASA hangar in Silicon Valley.
Here are this year’s five biomedical winners, each of whom receives $3 million along with a Oscar statuette-esque trophy fashioned in the shape of a coil resembling DNA:
- Roeland Nusse: He co-discovered a gene and mapped out its role in producing the molecular messages that are key to embryonic development — and, when things go wrong, cancer. Companies are using his research to develop drugs for low bone density and colon cancer.
- Stephen Elledge: The Harvard biologist contributed key insights into how cells repair damaged DNA. The same work won Elledge one of last year’s Lasker Awards, one of the most prestigious honors in medical science.
- Harry Noller: A molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he did key work elucidating the structure of ribosomes, which convert RNA into proteins.
- Yoshinori Ohsumi: It’s been a good year for this Japanese biologist. Earlier this fall he won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the same work that the Breakthrough Prize honors: his discovery of the cell process known as autophagy, which allows cells to recycle proteins and other molecules instead of just disposing them.
- Dr. Huda Yahya Zoghbi: A rare diseases researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, she’s being honored for uncovering the genetic causes and biological mechanisms of two rare neurological diseases. The work may have applications for drugs for conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. (Read more about her story here.)
Held annually since 2013, the Breakthrough Prize puts scientists on the same red carpet as celebrities. (Hollywood stars in attendance generally have at least a tangential connection to the world of science, even if that’s just a starring role in a science-themed film.)
The idea, as conceived by the billionaire venture capitalist Yuri Milner, was to elevate scientists to the level of celebrities and actors in the eye of the public. Asked how well he’s achieved that goal, Milner said, basically, it’s all relative.
“Compared to some other prizes, we’re doing very well. Compared to the Super Bowl, we have a long way to go,” he told STAT in a phone interview.
This year’s Breakthrough Prize ceremony also honored six physicists, a mathematician, and teenagers who created science videos. All told, the program doled out $25 million in prize money. Milner and his wife fund it, along with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, and 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki.
Milner wouldn’t disclose the budget for the ceremony itself.
Past Breakthrough Prize winners interviewed by STAT described the surreal experience of listening to the roar of celebrities’ jets touching down for the ceremony — and conversations with Hollywood types that ranged from starstruck to scientifically literate.
This year’s winners will spend Monday doing something more in their comfort zone: participating in a full day of talks and panel discussions on topics like gravitational wave astronomy and the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9.
No Hollywood celebrities are on that agenda.