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Breakthrough Prize honors local science pioneers at Moffett

Stanford professor, others among honorees

It was a constellation of stars, science and Silicon Valley luminaries at the Nasa Ames Research Park on Sunday for the annual Breakthrough Prize. Now in its fifth year, the award ceremony honors scientific achievement with the glitz of a Hollywood gala, and it did not disappoint.

The red carpet event, staged in front of the skeletal Hangar One, felt like a marriage of two distant worlds -- NASA Ames director Eugene Tu fielded media questions next to musician wil.i.am.; Los Altos billionaire Yuri Milner presented awards with actress Sienna Miller; 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki walked arm-in-arm with baseball powerhouse A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez).

But ask anyone what was the highlight of the night, and you'd hear the same refrain: “Tonight is all about the scientists.”

While they might not be household names, these unsung heroes will be a big deal for generations to come. Among the local Breakthrough winners, Stanford University professor Roeland Nusse received a Life Sciences award for his research into Wnt signals, a crucial accomplishment for advancing stem-cell research for medical applications, including potential cancer treatments.

Another Life Sciences award went to UC Santa Cruz professor Harry Noller for his pioneering research into ribosomes and RNA. It was a field of study that years ago wasn't given much thought since the emphasis was on proteins. He recalls colleagues calling his RNA research a "crackpot idea." Needless to say, Noller felt vindicated today. His advice to the younger generation was to follow their passions.

"The most important quality for science is desire; if you're excited by it, go for it," Noller said.

For budding scientist, a Breakthrough Junior awards honors young people who design their own videos to explain scientific concepts. This year's winners -- Deanna See, 17, of Singapore and Antonella Masini, 18, of Peru -- both credited Mountain View-based Khan Academy's acclaimed educational videos for demonstrating how complex ideas could be relayed in a way that's easy to understand.

In fact, See said she first learned about the Breakthrough awards after Khan sent out a mass-email to his younger subscribers urging them apply. She put together a short video on superbugs -- pathogens that are building up an immunity to antibiotics.

On Sunday, she was walking a red carpet in front of a phalanx of photographers, about to accept a $250,000 scholarship as well as a new science lab for her school.

"It's just surreal being here," See said with a wide grin. "It's absolutely great."

About $25 million in prize money in total was awarded to Breakthrough Prize winners in categories of Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences and Mathematics. Believed to be the largest cash award in sciences, the Breakthrough Prize provides each winner $3 million.

All the winners of the 2017 Breakthrough Prize can be found at the event's website.

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