3 UC scholars win Breakthrough Prizes

Three University of California scholars were among winners of a science prize that aims to make scientists as famous as the celebrities who presented them their awards Sunday (Nov. 9) at a black-tie gala.

Begun in 2012 by a Russian philanthropist and tech titans Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, the Breakthrough Prize recognizes outstanding achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences and math. Winners receive an award of $3 million — more than twice the award given to Nobel Laureates.

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier

Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley (center) and colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier (left), are winners of the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Credit: Breakthrough Prize

This year, more than 60 biologists, physicists and mathematicians shared the 2015 prizes. They were honored at a star-studded event hosted by actor and "Cosmos" executive producer Seth MacFarlane held in Hangar One at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

Jennifer Doudna, of UC Berkeley, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was one of the life sciences prizewinners. She and Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and Umea University in Sweden won for their discovery of a DNA-editing technique that has revolutionized the world of genetics and could lead to advances in gene therapy.

Saul Perlmutter, also of UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab, shared the physics prize for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe and dark energy. The same research won Perlmutter and his colleagues the 2011 Nobel Prize.

UCLA professor Terence Tao was among the winners of the math prize, which was announced in June. Tao was honored for numerous breakthroughs in harmonic analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations and analytic number theory. He is one of the world’s leading mathematicians and a winner of the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

"The world faces many fundamental challenges today, and there are many amazing scientists, researchers and engineers helping us solve them,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, one of the co-founders of the prize. “This year's Breakthrough Prize winners have made discoveries that will help cure disease and move the world forward. They deserve to be recognized as heroes."

Yuri Milner, the Russian philanthropist who established the prize, said the awards help celebrate those whose work is truly transformative.

“Most of our time is spent on mundane matters,” Milner said. “Tonight we thought about the molecules of life, the structure of prime numbers and the fate of the universe. It was an uplifting occasion for everyone.”

Milner and his wife Julia founded the Breakthrough Prize to raise the profile of science and scientists. Other backers include Google founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki; Alibaba founder Jack Ma and his wife, Cathy Zhang; and Facebook founder Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

Among the celebrity presenters at the award ceremony were actors Kate Beckinsale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Diaz, Jon Hamm and Eddie Redmayne.

The prizewinners are being celebrated in a series of three symposia today (Nov. 10) at Stanford University.