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Popular Science names “brilliant 10” researchers/scientists under 40

Test tubes and other recipients in chemistry lab

Image by Horia Varlan via Flickr

Who are the smartest and most innovative researchers across the U.S.? The editors of Popular Science have chosen this year’s “Brilliant 10”: researchers and scientists representing “the best of what science can achieve and demonstrate.”

“Our annual ‘Brilliant 10’ feature is a testament to the importance of scientific research and a salute to the dazzling young minds driving it,” said Mark Jannot, editor-in-chief of Popular Science. “Each year, we solicit nominations from hundreds of eminent scientists and whittle the candidates down to the ones whose work really blows the tops of our heads off. Over the past 10 years, we’ve celebrated the achievements of 100 scientists who are changing the way we look at, and live in, our world, and I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.”

Here’s info about them from Popular Science.

  1. Hashim M. Al-Hashimi, 37, University of Michigan: Using nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and a computer algorithm he developed to crunch the data, Hashim M. Al-Hashimi has recorded the atomic-scale contortions of molecules like RNA and DNA, long thought of in biology as relatively inflexible structures. Using this new method, Al-Hashimi has already identified one molecule, called netilmicin, that can stop HIV replication by latching onto RNA where one of the virus’s essential proteins otherwise would.
  2. Hatice Altug, 33, Boston University: One of the challenges of medicine in developing countries is fast, reliable, diagnosis of infectious disease in primitive lab conditions. To bring rapid virus diagnostics to this underserved population, Hatice Altug and her research team at Boston University have developed and tested a biosensor that uses precisely manipulated light to detect disease-causing organisms. In July, the National Institute of Health awarded Altug’s group a five-year, $5-million grant to make the biosensor clinic-ready.
  3. Jaap De Roode, 34, Emory University: Evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode stalks monarch butterflies to see on which plant species they deposit their eggs. After seeing the monarchs seemingly thwart their parasites by munching on a nonnative tropical milkweed plant, he suggested that they were self-medicating. The findings upended the accepted dogmas that only animals with cognitive complexity use medicine. If butterflies, which have simple nervous systems and no social structure, could preferentially use medicine, perhaps self-medication is pervasive in the animal kingdom and scientists just haven’t been looking closely enough to find it.
  4. Eitan Grinspun, 36, Columbia University’s Engineering School: It began with a crushed can of Coke. Eitan Grinspun’s advisor at Cal Tech asked if he would help develop a computer model to determine how sheets of metal bend when crushed. The journey to model a crushed Coke can ended with an entirely new field of geometry. Greenspun became one of just a few mathematicians in the world working on discreet differential geometry, rewriting its theorems so a computer could understand them. Today, Disney and Weta Digital now use Grinspun’s theorems to make fabrics and hair more realistic.
  5. Chad Jenkins, 37, Brown University: When Chad Jenkins was an Atari-addicted kid, all he wanted was to someday become a video-game designer. But once he got to grad school and taught his first virtual humanoid robot how to do the Cabbage Patch, he switched his addiction to robots. Now Jenkins aims to program robots so that they learn the way kids do: through mimicry and repetition. Instead of watching the person, the robot will learn by watching itself, recording its every movement and action, and using learning algorithms to find the most efficient way to complete a task.
  6. Justin Kasper, 33, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: In July, a colleague showed Justin Kasper a telescope video of a never-before-seen event: A comet crashing into the sun. What grabbed Kasper’s attention was the moment before impact, when a cloud puff suggested that the comet hit unobserved material. To solve the question of what caused the cloud puff, and others, Kasper plans to get close to the Sun. And now he’s designing an instrument that will do just that. His creation, The Solar Probe Cup, will ride on NASA’s first solar mission in 2018.
  7. Alessandra Luchini, 34, George Mason University: In 2005, Alessandra Luchini came to the U.S. on a grant by the Italian National Health Institute to study ways to detect molecular signs of cancer. Some diseases, early on, release faint hints of their presence into our bodily fluids. These biomarkers are ephemeral, so they’re undetectable in most lab tests. To help doctors catch and stabilize these disease biomarkers, Luchini has built a nanoparticle trap. So far, Luchini has used the nanoparticle traps to produce an early diagnosis of infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and tuberculosis. She and her team are also working on nanotraps to find skin cancer biomarkers that exist in a person’s sweat. The ultimate goal of this project is to modify the nanoparticles to they can trap biomarkers within a person, giving doctor’s a real-time view of what’s going on in someone’s body.
  8. Gaby Maimon, 36, Rockefeller University: Gaby Maimon can read fruit flies’ minds. As their wings buzz under his microscope, he’s watching the neurons fire in their poppy seed-sized brains. By doing so, he is able to discern how the firings of certain neurons correspond to certain behaviors. Ultimately, his goal is to untangle precisely how genes and neuron activation trigger such behavioral disorders as autism and ADHD.
  9. Tobias Ritter, 36, Harvard University: Chemistry is 90% failure, say Tobias Ritter. In his case, the breakthrough that came after many dead ends could make many drugs more efficient. Ritter had been studying flourination since 2005. Drug manufacturers had long known that flourine may make their products more stable, potent and penetrating, but the standard methods for attaching flourines were unreliable and more often than not would damage the drugs. Ritters flourination method could make depression and cancer drugs better at attaching to their targets, and as a result, more effective.
  10. Susannah Tringe, 38, U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute: A biophysicist by training, Susanna Tringe strives to piece together complex, inscrutable systems. She’s focused most closely on wetland microbes and the soil and plants they live in and on: Studying the ecosystem’s collective biology to help her figure out whether the wetlands are pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—or whether, in some cases, they’re promoting global warming by producing methane and other greenhouse gases. The Department of Energy recently awarded Tringe with a $2.5 million research grant to continue her study of wetland ecosystem restoration. If we restore all of the drained wetlands in the Sacramento Delta, ”it would be like converting all of the SUVs in the state into hybrids.”

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