This year’s winners of the Shaw Prize, who range from biologists and mathematicians to astronomers, used a series of lectures and a public forum to encourage young scientists and mathematicians to pursue their ideas, and to introduce the general public to recent scientific breakthroughs.

Considered the Nobel Prize of the East, the Shaw Prize was established in 2002 by a donation from Hong Kong philanthropist Sir Run Run Shaw, and serves to recognise international scientists and mathematicians who have contributed substantially to furthering social progress and the quality of human life. The prize offers US$1 million per winner.

The awardees, who are pioneers in their fields, had timely words of advice and encouragement about the future of science, especially for the younger generation.

William Borucki (right), Shaw laureate in Astronomy discusses the timeline of his work in NASA.

William J Borucki, who was awarded the Astronomy prize for founding and assuming the role of principal investigator for the Kepler Mission for NASA, reflected upon his work with the Apollo lunar missions in the 60s, and stressed the importance of persistence in science. Despite being rejected four times, he improved his project by working on existing technologies and finding his own budget, persisting in his belief in the importance of the project.

He said the “can-do” attitude of his team and their discoveries on his earlier projects had led to the birth and success of the Kepler mission.  The Kepler mission detects habitable planets, and continuously pushes the known boundaries of stellar physics.  “It takes a surprisingly small amount of resources to do this kind of research, even medical research, that is important to us. The trick is to use these resources correctly.”

He also adopts a strong stance about the future of open source astronomical data sharing, as well as responsible use of resources. ”We put that [Kepler] data in the public archive so that anybody can use it, with the tools and instruments needed to analyse it.” He said that the general public, including students, were discovering many exoplanets that had been overlooked by scientists.

The mathematics prize was awarded to the professors Gerd Faltings and Henryck Iwaniec for their contributions to the understanding of number theory and Diophantine equations, which have modern applications in credit card security, data compression and other areas of mathematics.

When asked about the general trend of Hong Kong-based mathematics majors entering careers in finance rather than remaining in mathematical research, Iwaniec commented “I do not believe mathematics should be driven by economic prosperity”, whereas Faltings quipped that there were “no moral obligations” to the practise of math.

He added, “If you work alone, you’re not ashamed of wrong ideas, but you never tell anybody. If you work together over decades, you get rid of this hesitation. It becomes a sort of entertainment.”  Faltings also briefly explained the difference between the mindset of the professor and the student. “Being a good student is different from doing good research. If you create something, you will be satisfied even if you don’t receive recognition.”

Bonnie Bassler, who shared the life sciences and medicine prize with E Peter Greenberg, discussed the global gender imbalance of scientists. She commented that not enough women go into the field, a common phenomenon in Hong Kong’s academic labs. ”You have to do more than your male counterparts for credibility. You don’t do it for credibility. You do it because you can’t not do it. If you love science, [gender bias] become a sort of noise. If you keep at it, there’s a hope that it’ll be easier for the next generation. There is a mechanism that great science lasts.”

Bassler and Greenberg cracked the secret code of bacterial language (termed quorum sensing). Their work has pioneered novel understandings of the mechanisms of certain infections and the origins of multicellular life. It is believed that their research could lead to potential new cures for human and plant diseases.

Greenberg shared his work philosophy by discussing his journey from field research to the lab bench. He challenged the focus of many academic researchers, saying “there are many people who are doing incremental science but you can rise above the fray” by asking bold, fringe questions.

From left to right: Bonnie L Bassler (laurate), E Peter Greenberg (laureate), Chan Wai Yee (Shaw Prize Council member and moderator).

As a final word of encouragement, Bassler summed up the spirit of the Shaw Prize by encouraging the next generation to persist in pioneering ideas, however novel. “There are plenty of women and men my age or older who are there now, and they’re looking out for the young people. And we will help you to have these wonderful joyous careers because we know that we’ve had that opportunity”.

Details of the Shaw Laureates can be found here.

Zareen Chiba

Zareen Chiba is a Hong Kong-based a medical student, global health advocate and freelance writer of Chinese-Indian descent. She covers international health, science and technology issues as well as disaster and humanitarian policy. Currently, she writes for the Hong Kong Medical Journal, the Independent Skies Magazine and various global health blogs. She seeks to bridge the communication gap between the scientist and the layman, and to inspire the interdisciplinary spirit of scientific discovery and humanitarian medicine in the community.