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May 28, 2008

Inaugural Kavli Science Prize Awarded to Two Columbia Scientists

Columbia scientists Louis E. Brus and Thomas Jessell have been named among the first recipients of the Kavli Prize. The awardees were announced during a live simulcast between Oslo and New York at the opening ceremony of the inaugural World Science Festival today at Columbia University.

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Professors Louis E. Brus and Thomas Jessell

The two Columbia researchers are among seven pioneering scientists who, according to the Kavli Foundation, have transformed and advanced the fields of nanoscience, neuroscience, and astrophysics. The winners, who hail from the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States, will each receive a scroll and medal and share the $1,000,000 prize awarded under each category.

"We are enormously proud of Tom Jessell, who guides our Nobel Prize-winning team of neuroscientists in our interdisciplinary Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, and of Louis Brus, for his leadership in physical chemistry and his fundamental breakthroughs in emerging nanoscience," said Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University. "We congratulate them both on this well-deserved honor."

Louis E. Brus is the Samuel Latham Mitchell Professor of Chemistry and professor of chemical engineering in the Department of Chemistry at Columbia. In 1983, Brus made a fundamental discovery while studying optical properties of semiconductors whose atoms or molecules had been excited by the absorption of light. Collaborating with colleagues, Brus made smaller and smaller synthetic particles and later realized these semiconductor nanocrystals, now known as quantum dots, could prove highly useful in a variety of fields. Today, scientists investigate quantum dots in medical applications such as early cancer identification, tumor imaging and drug delivery. Others use them to develop advanced computer displays and low-cost photovoltaic cells with increased flexibility and efficiency.

Professor Brus, who learned that he was a recipient just hours before the awardees were announced, says he is surprised and honored by the news. "The prize brings recognition to the chemistry department, which is a very strong one," said Brus. "Columbia is a great place to learn science and to be an intellectual."

Brus shares the award with physicist Sumio Iijima (Meijo University, Japan), who is widely known as the discoverer of carbon nanotubes. The Prize committee cited Brus and Iijima "for their large impact in the development of the nanoscience field of the zero dimensional nanostructures in physics, chemistry and biology."

For discoveries on the developmental and functional logic of neuronal circuits, the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience was awarded to Thomas Jessell, Claire Tow Professor in Neuroscience & Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, part of the Columbia University Medical Center. Jessell shares the award with Pasko Rakic (Yale) and Sten Grillner (The Karolinska Institute, Sweden). The Kavli Prize committee cited the scientists "for discoveries on the developmental and functional logic of neuronal circuits."

Thomas Jessell has defined key cellular and molecular mechanisms that control the development and functional organization of the spinal cord. His work has delineated combinatorial arrangements of transcription factors and extracellular signals that generate different classes of motor-, sensory- and inter-neurons as well as steps that drive their assembly into neural circuits that mediate reflex behavior and motor coordination.

"It is important to know that the work being recognized is a collective venture that has gone on for two decades and involved many, many remarkably talented students and postdoctoral fellows," said Jessell. "Columbia is a remarkably supportive institution for research. The sense of collegiality here distinguishes it from many other first-rate institutions."

The Kavli Prize is named after and funded by Fred Kavli, founder of the Kavlico Corporation, one of the world's largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial application. "The Kavli Prizes were created to recognize achievements in three exceptionally exciting fields which we believe promise remarkable future discoveries and benefits for humanity in the 21st century and beyond," said Kavli, who attended the ceremony in New York.

The Kavli Prize is a partnership with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

The Kavli announcements, along with an opening address by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, kicked off the World Science Summit, an invitation-only "meeting of the minds" from science, business, government, media, the arts, and academia to explore how today's scientific discoveries may shape tomorrow's world. The Summit is part of the World Science Festival, which begins Thursday, May 29, and runs through June 1, and includes 40 events throughout New York City. The Festival seeks to transform the public perception of science by producing high-caliber programs that make science exciting, accessible, compelling, and inspirational.