In recognition of their outstanding contributions to the advancement of science and human progress through pioneering, collaborative and innovative research, the 2018 NOMIS Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award was presented to Didier Fassin, Victoria Orphan and Don W. Cleveland (pictured above, l-r) on Oct. 4, 2018.
Their groundbreaking work in anthropology (Fassin), geobiology (Orphan) and neurobiology (Cleveland) is paving the way for new discoveries not only in their respective fields of study but also in neighboring disciplines.
The NOMIS award gala held at the Gottlieb-Duttweiler-Institute (GDI) in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, brought together a group of over 150 NOMIS researchers and partners, including top scientists and scholars, representatives of world-renowned research institutes, and research benefactors, to honor the awardees’ scientific achievements. The award recipients were announced earlier this year.
Everything connects to everything else
As part of the ceremony, the awardees participated in a panel discussion under the theme “Everything connects to everything else” (Leonardo da Vinci). The relevance of this premise, in a time of increasing division in many aspects of our world, was brought to life in the discussion moderated by European ethnologist and journalist Karin Frei. Fassin said,
“The opposition that is often made between natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities is that when journalists ask us, “What are your discoveries?” — because natural scientists make discoveries — we say this is not the way we work: We don’t make discoveries, we try to understand the world. But this is something that we deeply share, which is understanding the world before everything else.”
Finding new angles from which to approach the world’s most pressing questions is fundamental to innovative research. And being able to examine such questions from an interdisciplinary perspective is a defining element of the NOMIS award. According to Orphan,
“Half the battle is creating awareness and instilling wonderment in people outside of the discipline, and in appreciating and looking at the world a little bit differently, everybody wins. I think the same is true even in the social sciences — it’s all about standing outside of yourself and taking a different perspective. That’s where new discoveries, new insights come from.”
Making these discoveries and gaining new insights into age-old problems — to find the connections that may not yet be apparent — requires perseverance, another quality that all NOMIS awardees share. Cleveland said,
“Like science, actually like most endeavors in life, success comes with perseverance — and we all need perseverance going forward.”
Awardee lecture series
Another tenet of the NOMIS award is the willingness of the researchers to share their work and insights openly. Celebrating this notion, each of the 2018 awardees presented their research at prominent Swiss universities prior to the award ceremony.
Cleveland’s Oct. 3 lecture at ETH Zurich, “Designer DNA drugs for neurodegenerative disease,” revealed how he and his team are working to treat diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease. Designer DNA drugs can be used to block the activity in the nervous system of any target gene. Cleveland’s work has enabled, for example, the reversal of Huntington’s disease.
Fassin and Orphan presented their research at the University of Zurich on Oct. 4. Ellen Hertz, president of the Swiss Anthropological Association, introduced Fassin by saying, “Anthropologists agree on almost nothing, but we agree on this [NOMIS] nomination.” Fassin’s lecture, “A new age of anxiety? Rethinking crises in the contemporary world,” shed light on the different ways in which the sense of crisis that is ubiquitous in today’s world can be viewed. This ongoing work will pose questions such as, who benefits from crises and what are their motivations? and what does the naming of a crisis authorize and what does it censure?
Orphan’s lecture, “Understanding the microbial networks that shape life and biogeochemistry of our oceans,” virtually transported the audience to the ocean floor, where Orphan and her team are examining the interactions of the rich microbial life in deep-sea sediment with the environment. Microbes outweigh all 7.6 billion people and every other animal on the planet by 63 to one, with most of them residing in the ocean. She and her team have shown that some of these microbes work together in symbiosis to regulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by consuming methane as their primary source of carbon.