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Talent Showcase: 2018 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in Israel

Meet the rising scientific stars taking center stage this year.

Life Sciences Laureate

Oded Rechavi, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Department of Neurobiology, Tel Aviv University

Dr. Rechavi’s research upends the traditional laws of inheritance. The notion that traits acquired over the course of a lifetime could influence heredity was heresy until recently, when Dr. Rechavi showed how environmental conditions can imprint “molecular memories” that govern the passage of acquired traits to future generations.

Rechavi’s work in C. elegans, a species of small worms, illustrates how various stressors can induce heritable changes mediated not by DNA, but by small RNAs. By transferring small RNAs from the regular cells of the body that are impacted by the stressor, to the “germline” cells (eggs and sperm) that pass on traits to the next generation, the experiences of one generation can produce long-lasting impacts on gene regulation in multiple subsequent generations.

Rechavi’s lab published the first proofs of this effect, showing that exposing the parent worms to a virus confers immunity on the offspring through the transfer of small RNAs. He later showed that a similar mechanism allows the offspring of starved worms to live longer and to better survive periods of starvation. His group has identified the genes and determined the rules that govern which changes are heritable, as well as the potential duration of that inheritance.

Rechavi has hypothesized that similar mechanisms of small-RNA-based inheritance exist in mammals, including humans. Encompassing genetics, evolutionary biology and developmental biology, Rechavi’s research is fundamental to advancing understanding of the heritability of complex traits and diseases.

Chemistry Laureate

Charles Diesendruck, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Technion — Israel Institute of Technology

Dr. Diesendruck works at the intersection of chemistry, physics and materials science, in the recently resurgent field of mechanochemistry. Diesendruck and his collaborators are using mechanically driven reactions to create novel molecules and new materials capable of responding to both physical and chemical stimuli.

As polymers and fiber-composites have become ubiquitous, the tendency of these materials to break, split or otherwise degrade under pressure have limited their application, especially in high-strain environments such as aircraft and automobiles. Diesendruck’s research seeks to better understand how mechanical forces can change molecular bonds and alter the properties of materials, using this knowledge to design resilient, responsive macromolecules for next-generation polymers.

In Diesendruck’s vision, these “smart” materials will be customized with specific stress conduction characteristics, respond productively to mechanical strain, and be able to detect and reinforce or repair structural damage. Diesendruck was among the research team that created the first autonomously “self-healing” fiber-composites, a key step toward producing materials that maximize the benefits of composites, including strength and weight, while minimizing the risks from damage and increasing the longevity of these materials in transportation and other applications.

Diesendruck’s group is also engaged in exploratory research probing difficult or previously inaccessible chemical transformations that may lead to new reactions and reactants.

Physical Sciences & Engineering Laureate

Anat Levin, PhD, Associate Professor, The Andrew & Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Technion — Israel Institute of Technology

Prof. Levin is a leader in the emerging field of computational photography, which blends computing with traditional imaging techniques to transcend the limitations of even the most advanced cameras, producing novel imaging results and capabilities. Levin’s work is rooted in discovering mathematical foundations and applying them to solve real-world challenges in imaging and optics.

She is the creator of a prototype computational camera specialized to capture moving objects and scenes, which introduces a constant, quantifiable degree of motion blur during exposure to allow for streamlined blur removal in post-processing. Prof. Levin has also worked to optimize the process of colorizing grayscale images and videos, simplifying a historically time-consuming and expensive process using a method that automatically propagates color among pixels based on the intensity of neighboring pixels.

Advances in computational photography will have implications that extend well beyond digital photography, including improving medical, microscope and telescope imaging, and ultimately transforming videography. More recently, Levin has published methods for utilizing patterns of light scatter to determine the chemical composition of a material, a technique that could have implications for fields as diverse as ultrasound imaging and air quality assessment.

She has also developed dynamic digital displays that instantly adapt to changes in light and viewing angle, and prototype displays that may ultimately enable large-scale, glasses-free 3D movie viewing.

(Back Row L to R) Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO, New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Charles Diesendruck, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Prof. Anat Levin, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Len Blavatnik, Chairman, Access Industries/Blavatnik Family Foundation, Dr. Oded Rechavi, Tel Aviv University. (Front Row L to R) Nechama Rivlin, First Lady of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel, Prof. Nili Cohen, President, Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


Academy Communications Department
This article was written by a member of the Academy Communications team.

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