Oscars of Science bring prestige and reward for groundbreaking work
By Mark Niu

At the NASA Ames Research Center and inside a hanger, an event took place on Sunday that was like no other.

The Breakthrough Prize combined different worlds in an almost surreal fashion.

Walking down the red carpet were international rock stars like Lenny Kravitz, will.i.am and Chinese singing sensation Rachel Zhang. 

Then there were the movie stars, like Charlie's Angels actress Drew Barrymore, Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson, and Edward Norton of Fight Club fame.

"I think celebrating the work, what the honorees have done is much more important than any film or record album or sporting event," said Norton. "This is the kind of work that's actually going to change the world." 

Glamorous supermodels soon found their way down the red carpet too, like Adriana Lima, Karlie Kloss and Tyra Banks, who also serves as a TV host in numerous American shows. 

"I love the fact that they have taken the entertainment industry to help amplify the message of science," said Banks. "And I feel like we are not here just to make it cool and for people to hear about it, but for the younger generation to look at this as a sexy career to get into."

The Breakthrough Prize event awarded a combined total of over 21 million U.S. dollars in recognition of groundbreaking research achievements in Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics. 

Each Breakthrough Prize was three million U.S. dollars, the largest monetary prize in science.

One of the winners was Hong Kong-born Virginia Man-Yee Lee a neuropathologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee accepting the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences /Getty Image

Virginia Man-Yee Lee accepting the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences /Getty Image

She won the Life Sciences award for her research on the pathological process by which protein tangles in the brain lead to degenerative diseases including Alzheimer's.

"It's a great honor to receive this award," said Lee. "But you know, I still go to work every day. I still have to do the science. And I think it's wonderful to be recognized."

Chinese scientists also played a role in another astounding achievement – the first ever imaging of a massive black hole.  Using eight telescopes positioned across the planet, a global team of 347 scientists from 20 countries managed to capture images of a monstrous, light-gobbling black hole the size of 3.5 billion suns.

"Our Chinese colleagues are helping not only with analyzing the data and taking the data, but also with the telescopes used to collect the data,"said Sheperd Doeleman, Founding Director of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. "There is so much that divides us as people. These days there's politics, there's business, there's borders. What was nice about this project is we sidestepped all of that. And we were able to reach across the borders and work together."

Perhaps the most heart-felt moments of the night came when the 2019 Breakthrough Junior Challenge was awarded. 

Jeffery Chen accepting the Breakthrough Junior Challenge prize /Getty Image

Jeffery Chen accepting the Breakthrough Junior Challenge prize /Getty Image

The audience watched a video of how high school senior Jeffery Chen sat in his California classroom when a Breakthrough Prize representative entered and told him his video exploring Neutrino Astronomy had won the award.

Chen not only won a 250,000 U.S. dollars scholarship, but another 100,000 U.S. dollars for his high school lab and 50,000 U.S. dollars for the teacher who inspired him.

"I did not think I'd win the Breakthrough Junior Challenge when I was making the video," said Chen. "But I'm definitely really grateful and really excited that it ended up being that way."

The key sponsors of the Breakthrough Prize are made up of a who's who in the technology world, including Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Tencent founder Ma Huateng.