Honorees of the Prestigious 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists Announced

Winning postdoctoral scientists include a neuroscientist researching mosquito feeding habits, a theoretical physicist investigating the relationship between quantum gravity and black holes, and an organic chemist improving the efficiency of chemical synthesis.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences announced today the three Winners and six Finalists of the 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists. Supporting outstanding postdoctoral scientists from academic research institutions across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut since 2007, the Blavatnik Regional Awards recognize outstanding researchers in three scientific disciplinary categories: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry. One Winner in each category is awarded $30,000 in unrestricted funds; two Finalists in each category receive $10,000 each in unrestricted funds.

In 2019, the Blavatnik Regional Awards received 137 nominations from 20 academic institutions in the tri-state area. The 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Winners are: 

  • Life Sciences: Laura Duvall, PhD, nominated by The Rockefeller University (now at Columbia University). Dr. Duvall’s discovery of two key molecules in mosquitos that inhibit blood-feeding and breeding has worldwide implications for controlling mosquito populations and the spread of diseases such as Dengue and Zika. At the time of nomination, Dr. Duvall was a trainee of the 2007 Blavatnik Regional Awards Faculty Winner, Prof. Leslie Vosshall of The Rockefeller University.
  • Physical Sciences & Engineering: Netta Engelhardt, PhD, nominated by Princeton University (now at Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Dr. Engelhardt’s research at the interface of general relativity and quantum field theory is answering complex questions about the fundamentals of our universe, including the remarkable explanation for the origin of black hole entropy. Her work strives to understand how the fabric of the universe at large-scale is encoded in quantum gravity.
  • Chemistry: Juntao Ye, PhD, nominated by Cornell University (now at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China). Improving synthetic efficiency while lowering the cost of synthesis is a primary goal for pharmaceutical industries. Dr. Ye invented several new methods that allow for converting readily available chemicals into value-added and pharmaceutically relevant products in a highly efficient and economical manner, while reducing chemical byproduct waste. These methods could improve the efficiency of synthesizing complex and bioactive compounds, thereby accelerating the pace of drug discovery.

In recognition of the outstanding achievements of the 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards honorees, Len Blavatnik, Founder and Chairman of Access Industries and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, and member of the President’s Council of the New York Academy of Sciences stated, “These remarkable young scientists are making important contributions to scientific research and discovery early in their careers. We hope that the recognition this Award provides will both encourage and assist these brilliant young scientists as they pursue their innovative work to find solutions to mankind’s most challenging problems.”

“The cutting-edge discoveries being recognized this year cover an incredibly disparate breadth of work in quantum gravity, drug discovery, control of mosquito populations and underwater photographic imagery. These are the advances that will change our world,” said Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciencesand chair of the Blavatnik Awards’ Scientific Advisory Council. “The creativity, passion and dedication of these rising stars in science is an inspiration.”

2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Finalists 
The following postdoctoral researchers have been named Finalists in their respective categories:

Life Sciences 

  • Carla Nasca, PhD, nominated by The Rockefeller University — recognized for the discovery of acetyl-L-carnitine (LAC) as a novel modulator of brain rewiring and a possible new treatment for depression that acts by turning on and off specific genes related to the neurotransmitter glutamate.
  • Liling Wan, PhD, nominated by The Rockefeller University (currently transitioning to the University of Pennsylvania) — recognized for identifying a previously unknown function of a protein called ENL, which has the ability to read epigenetic information on our chromosomes and activate genes that perpetuate tumor growth. Elucidating the structure and mechanism of ENL has guided ongoing development of drugs to treat cancers.

Physical Sciences & Engineering 

  • Derya Akkaynak, PhD, nominated by Princeton University — recognized for significant breakthroughs in computer vision and underwater imaging technologies, resolving a fundamental technological problem in the computer vision community — the reconstruction of lost colors and contrast in underwater photographic imagery — which will have real implications for oceanographic research.
  • Matthew Yankowitz, PhD, nominated by Columbia University (now at the University of Washington) — recognized for groundbreaking experimental work modifying the electronic properties of a new class of two-dimensional materials, known as van der Waal materials. van der Waal materials have garnered tremendous interest due to their incredible electronic properties and the promise they show for use in next-generation optoelectronic and electronic devices, future computing, and telecommunications technologies. Dr. Yankowitz’s work has led to the discovery that applied pressure can be used to induce superconductive properties in multi-layer graphene, and has significantly advanced a new area of research recently coined “twistronics.”


  • Yaping Zang, PhD, nominated by Columbia University — recognized for innovatively using electrochemistry and electrical fields in conjunction with scanning tunneling microscopy techniques to drive chemical reactions. This work provides a deeper understanding of the reaction mechanisms and opens new avenues for the use of electricity as a catalyst in chemical reactions.
  • Igor Dikiy, PhD, nominated by the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY — recognized for completing the first study of G-protein–coupled receptor (GPCR) fast sidechain dynamics using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) spectroscopy to shed light on the molecular mechanisms of cell signaling. GPCRs control a variety of processes in the human body and are targets for over 30% of all FDA-approved drugs. Elucidating the mechanisms of GPCR signaling will enable researchers to design more effective drugs.

Honoring the Blavatnik Regional Award Winners and Finalists 
The 2019 Blavatnik Regional Awards Winners and Finalists will be honored at the New York Academy of Sciences’ Annual Gala at Cipriani 25 Broadway in New York on Monday, November 11, 2019.

About the Blavatnik Family Foundation 
The Blavatnik Family Foundation is an active supporter of world-renowned educational, scientific, cultural, and charitable institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and throughout the world. The Foundation is headed by Len Blavatnik, a global industrialist and philanthropist and the Founder and Chairman of Access Industries, a privately held U.S. industrial group with global strategic interests in natural resources and chemicals, media and telecommunications, real estate, and venture capital. See more at http://www.blavatnikfoundation.org.

About The New York Academy of Sciences 
The New York Academy of Sciences is an independent, not-for-profit organization that since 1817 has been committed to advancing science, technology, and society worldwide. With more than 20,000 Members in 100 countries around the world, the Academy is creating a global community of science for the benefit of humanity. The Academy’s core mission is to advance scientific knowledge, positively impact the major global challenges of society with science-based solutions, and increase the number of scientifically informed individuals in society at large. Please visit us online at http://www.nyas.org and follow us on Twitter at @NYASciences.

To follow the progress of the Blavatnik Awards, please visit http://www.blavatnikawards.org or follow us on Facebookand Twitter (@BlavatnikAwards).

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These remarkable young scientists are making important contributions to scientific research and discovery early in their careers.