By Albert Zhang
Three Stanford professors were honored by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation on Sunday night. Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering, was awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, while physicists Xiao-Liang Qi and Leonardo Senatore received New Horizons in Physics Prizes worth $100,000 each.
“The Breakthrough Prize recognizes contributions to science that will inspire and encourage others,” President John Hennessy said in a Stanford News article. “The innovative work of professors Deisseroth, Qi and Senatore indeed ignites that thrill of discovery as they seek to solve the greatest mysteries within our vast universe, and within the universe of our brain.”
Deisseroth was recognized for his crucial role in the development of optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to control a cell’s activity by inserting genes that add light-sensitive proteins to the cell’s membrane. This method has been of particular interest to neuroscientists, as it allows them to pinpoint the functions of specific nerve cells and circuits.
“I hope this technology will continue to be used to discover many more principles of nervous-system function, in health and in neurological and psychiatric diseases,” Deisseroth told the Stanford News.
Qi’s work in condensed matter physics looked at physical properties of certain quantum phases of matter called topological states. His work on topological insulators may lead to advances in novel methods of computation such as quantum computing.
Senatore, a cosmologist, investigated the causes of inflation, the short period of time after the Big Bang during which the universe expanded to around its current size. His research provides a possible theoretical basis for inflation, describing the forms of matter that might have caused it.
“The work I tend to do is very novel, and it can be difficult to get it recognized,” Senatore said in an interview with the Stanford News. “I think this award will help the theories and techniques I’ve developed to hopefully become more widespread in the community.”
The Breakthrough Prize Foundation was established in 2013 by venture capitalist Yuri Milner, with financial backing from tech luminaries, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. The foundation handed out $22 million in prizes this year in a private ceremony on Sunday night, featuring performers Seth MacFarlane and Pharrell Williams.
Contact Albert Zhang at albertzh ‘at’ stanford.edu.