The call that she had just been awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences came out of the blue, and Cori Bargmann says that there is no other word to describe her reaction but stunned. Bargmann had just reached her office at the Rockefeller University Wednesday morning when a phone call came through from Art Levinson, chair of Genentech and Apple, and Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur, Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and now scientific philanthropist. Last year Milner stunned the physics world with nine individual $3 million Breakthrough Prizes. This year, he organized a squad of internet entrepreneurs—Sergey Brin of Google, Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe (and wife of Brin), and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, of Facebook—to fund a prize of $3 million for each of 11 winners of the inaugural Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences. The group now says that the Life Science prizes will continue annually.
Bargmann is one of four current ASCB members to receive a prize, along with David Botstein of Princeton and a member of the ASCB Council, Titia de Lange, also at Rockefeller, and Eric S. Lander of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Counting recent ASCB members—Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins and Robert A. Weinberg of MIT—ASCB accounts for six of the 11 Breakthrough/Life Science winners, or $18 million in prizes.
Botstein, who is on sabbatical and traveling this year, happened to be home in Princeton, NJ, when he received an email from his old friend Levinson asking him to call. They talk from time to time, Botstein explained, but he had no inkling of what was on Levinson's mind this time. "I was in my office at home, sitting down," Botstein recalls, "otherwise it might have been difficult. Art introduced the fact that they have these prizes. We talked about that and eventually he came round to the sum."
At twice the cash value of a Nobel Prize, a $3 million Breakthrough/Life Science award might lift a research biologist to the celebrity realm of a professional athlete. At least that's the stated intention of the donors, according to Botstein. "I hope it works out that it will give more recognition to scientists as opposed to football players. I'm certainly for that."
Botstein continued, "I think that there needs to be balance in what's important in human culture. Most of the world is besotted with sports while some people are really into celebrities of various kinds. Science is arguably as important as any of these things, but it rarely gets the kind of notice that these donors want."
Whatever each of the 11 winners does with the prize money, Botstein believes that this recognition comes for their years of work on basic science, mostly cancer biology. "This is something which is given for being good at something that brings forward human understanding and knowledge."
In the aftermath of the announcement, Bargmann was still grappling with the reality of the award. "It's a surprise and it's an opportunity to try to do something that has meaning for me like conservation in developing countries," Bargmann said. "Perhaps something in Africa about aligning the interests of animals and people."
To get over the shock, Bargmann headed for a party at Rockefeller that evening where she was a co-guest of honor together with de Lange. Rockefeller is a small institution and two of the Breakthrough winners are there, Bargmann said. "And the two of us are women. And that's kind of cool as well."
The official press release is here.
Created on Wednesday, February 20, 2013; Updated on Friday, February 22, 2013