Armed with whittled-down scientific jargon and imaginative analogies, four Stony Brook University faculty members used their scientific research to compete for the $200,000 Discovery Prize on Thursday, April 13 in the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre.
“The Prize is awarded to an early-career Stony Brook faculty member in the STEM disciplines whose pioneering project embraces risk and innovation and embodies the potential of discovery-driven research – the catalysts for scientific advances,” Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. said in a campus-wide email.
Of the four Ph.D.’s, the winner was Thomas Allison, an assistant professor in the Chemistry and Physics departments who will use the prize money to document “movies” of electrons in motion.
Above all, the Discovery Prize Competition, founded in 2013 with a donation from the Stony Brook Foundation’s Board of Trustees, stresses the significance of scientific research in a time of dwindling U.S. federal funding.
Stanley’s opening speech emphasized concern for the future of federal research funding under the current presidential administration.
President Donald Trump’s preliminary 2018 federal budget proposal, released in March, slashes federal funding for the Energy Department’s Office of Science by $900 million, cuts $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health and eradicates the Fogarty International Center – a $69.1 million program that builds global partnerships among health research institutions. Perhaps most alarmingly, the proposed budget diminishes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent and purges a fifth of its workforce.
“To give you some perspective, Stony Brook University received 9.1 million in Department of Energy funding,” Stanley informed competition attendees. “As damaging as these cuts, if enacted, could be to our campus, they will be devastating to our ability as a nation to maintain our global leadership, innovation and energy.”
But how do scientists convince those outside their fields – the public, media, patients and politicians – to care about what happens in the lab?
“It’s very hard to get funding for basic research because it doesn’t seem to lead to a better toaster,” Alan Alda, actor and founder of SBU’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, said to a chorus of laughter. “You know more about nature, but what can you do with that knowledge?”
The key to convincing the public is effective science communication – conveying science without being bogged down by complex scientific jargon.
“It’s really a challenge for scientists to avoid technobabble,” Dr. Laurie Krug, the 2014 inaugural winner of the Discovery Prize Competition, said. “But in this day and age, it’s really become our responsibility.”
The four 2017 Discovery Prize contestants – Allison, Dr. Gábor Balázsi, Dr. Matthew Reuter and Dr. Neelima Sehgal – were coached by the Alda Center to communicate their intricate research topics in a time-span of 10 minutes with simple, imaginative language that an average person could grasp.
They addressed an audience of over 200, but their central spectators were the three judges: F. Duncan Haldane, 2016 Nobel Prize in physics winner, Barbara Jacak, member of the National Academy of Sciences and a former Stony Brook professor and James H. Simons, fellow Academy member and co-founder and chairman of the Simons Foundation.
The detector developed by Allison and his team can efficiently record movies of the energy and angle of electrons in motion – a feat that the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s $912 million synchrotron and another particle accelerator-based light source machine, the free electron laser, can’t do quite as well, Allison said. Both the synchrotron and free electron laser capture high-depth pictures of molecules with pulses of light.
Of the four competitors, Allison left with the $200,000, prize money that will help operate a special machine to support his project: “Recording Movies of Molecular Orbitals with Ångström and Attosecond Resolution.” But each presenter, judge and audience member left with newfound knowledge about our world and its possibilities.
“The thing that I love the most about [research], and that I wish we all could tune into even more, is the wonder – the awe of nature that basic research gives us,” Alda said. “We understand things that were never understood before.”