By Teresa Fausey
The Vilcek Foundation, co-founded by Jan T. Vilcek, a biomedical scientist, inventor, educator, and philanthropist, and his wife Marica Vilcek, an art historian, was created for the purpose of recognizing the contributions foreign-born scientists and artists, living and working in the United States, make to our society and culture.
Each year, the Vilcek Prize is awarded for outstanding achievements in the biomedical sciences and the arts. A second award, the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, recognizes the achievements of younger immigrant artists and scientists.
“Each year during the selection process for the Vilcek Prizes, we are overcome with inspiring stories and innovative works that demonstrate the true impact that foreign-born artists and scientists have on science and culture in the U.S.,” said Rick Kinsel, executive director of the Vilcek Foundation. “This year is no exception; our winners are at the forefront of modernization. They are building a better future for generations to come, and it’s an honor to recognize each of these remarkable prizewinners.”
Among this year’s eight winners are three high-achieving women who are doing exciting work and excelling in STEM disciplines.
The Vilcek Prize for Design was awarded to architect and designer, Neri Oxman, for her innovative designs of digitally fabricated materials inspired by nature. An assistant professor of media arts and sciences, and director of the Mediated Matter group, at MIT, Dr. Oxman calls her field of endeavor “material ecology.” She, along with her team, seeks to unite principles of nature with those of engineering to create new materials for use by architects and designers. Known as computationally enabled form finding, Dr. Oxman says this process is “where all the fun is.”
Her groundbreaking approach to design and exciting creations has attracted worldwide attention and brought Dr. Oxman multiple honors and awards. Her Natural Artifice Series was commissioned by, and is part of the permanent collection of, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and her “Imaginary Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet” (a representation of ancient myths) has been acquired by the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Her work also appears in other important collections.
Born and raised in Israel, Dr. Oxman studied medicine at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School and architecture at Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. She earned a diploma from the Architectural Association in London and came to the United States in 2005 to complete a PhD in design computation as a Presidential Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One of this year’s Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science was awarded to Pardis Sabeti, an associate professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University’s Center for System Biology and an associate member of the Broad Institute. A computational geneticist, Dr. Sabeti studies genetic diversity, developing algorithms to detect genetic signatures of natural selection, and carries out genetic association studies.
The Sabeti Lab, headed by Pardis Sabeti and part of the FAS Center of Systems Biology at Harvard, uses computational methods and genomics to understand mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation in humans and pathogens. To this end, the lab develops analytical and experimental methods to detect and investigate natural selection in the genome of humans and other species; examines host and viral genetic factors driving resistance to Lassa fever in West Africa; and examines signals of natural selection in pathogens, including Lassa virus, Ebola virus, and Plasmodium falciparum malaria, to understand their rapid evolution and study their genetic diversity.
By the time her family fled Iran’s fundamentalist regime in 1978 and came to the United States, Pardis Sabeti had already discovered a love for math. So it’s not surprising that she later became a National Merit Scholar, completed an undergraduate degree in biology at MIT, earned a doctorate at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and attended Harvard Medical School as a Soros Fellow, graduating summa cum laude.
Also a winner of the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, Yasaman Hashemian was recognized for her achievements in the design and creation of games for children. Involved in a number of health-based research projects that enable her to make the most of her skills as a game and usability designer, data analyst, and game producer, Ms. Hashemian has collaborated in the creation of games and created games on her own. Virtual Sprouts, a game she created, presents gardening and cooking as fun activities for children, and introduces them to many fruits and vegetables.
As a scholar visitor at University of Southern California’s Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center, Ms. Hashemian also collaborated on Enchanted Garden, a touch-based interactive game that introduces young children to concepts about vision, and Brain Architecture—a board game that teaches children how brain development is affected by genes, environment, and behavior. Her most ambitious undertaking so far is her master’s thesis project, Adventurous Dreaming Highflying Dragon, a full-body-driven game based on research that shows physical activity can improve ADHD symptoms in children.
Born and raised in Iran, Yasaman Hashemian earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science at Tabriz University. Armed with a solid knowledge of computer programming and digital graphic design, as well as a desire to enrich children’s lives by making high technology more accessible to them, she is now pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at University of Southern California’s School of the Cinematic Arts–Interactive Media Division. Ms. Hashemian plans to launch her own company where she can use her design skills to create practical artistic works and provide a better environment for children.