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UC San Diego Professor Named 2020 Blavatnik National Awards Finalist in Chemistry

June 17, 2020 | By Cynthia Dillon

Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Joel Yuen-Zhou. Photo by Michelle Fredricks, UC San Diego Physical SciencesAssistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Joel Yuen-Zhou. Photo by Michelle Fredricks, UC San Diego Physical Sciences

Thirty-one of the nation’s rising stars in science were announced recently as the 2020 finalists of the prestigious Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, the world’s largest unrestricted prize for early-career scientists. Among the finalists is UC San Diego’s Joel Yuen-Zhou, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry who operates the Yuen-Zhou Theoretical Chemistry Group on campus.

Controlling a chemical reaction so that it produces a desired result is considered the holy grail of synthetic chemistry. Yuen-Zhou, recognized as one of the preeminent theoreticians in the emerging field of molecular polaritonics—the study of quantum phenomena stemming from strong interactions of molecules with photons, has shown that chemical reactions can be controlled by tuning the frequency of light applied to the reaction within a microscopically confined space. This discovery could potentially revolutionize the field of synthetic chemistry.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation chose Yuen-Zhou, along with the 30 other finalists, out of more than 300 nominations from 161 academic and research centers across 41 U.S. states. These esteemed finalists, all scientists and engineers, will compete to be one of three Blavatnik National Awards Laureates in the following categories: chemistry, physical sciences & engineering, and life sciences. The three laureates will be announced July 22, 2020, and each will receive $250,000.

Established by the foundation in 2013 and independently administered by the New York Academy of Sciences to elevate the work and research of early-career scientists, the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists recognize the past accomplishments and future promise of the most talented faculty-rank scientists and engineers aged 42 years and younger at America’s top academic and research institutions. In an era where most scientific prizes honor lifetime achievement, the Blavatnik National Awards aim to support young scientists at a pivotal career juncture when money and visibility can catapult a scientist’s career, thereby accelerating the pace of scientific innovation and discovery for society at large.

“I am humbled and honored to be recognized as a finalist in this prestigious competition,” said Yuen-Zhou. “This recognition is really for the members of my research team at UC San Diego, who work very hard every day to push the frontier in the exciting new field of polariton chemistry. I feel very fortunate for having a job where I constantly learn from such enthusiastic and creative minds.”

Professor Yuen-Zhou explaining to students. Photo by Michelle Fredricks, UC San Diego Physical SciencesProfessor Yuen-Zhou explaining to students. Photo by Michelle Fredricks, UC San Diego Physical Sciences

Blavatnik scholars like Yuen-Zhou, according to the foundation, are driving key advances in science that will transform the world. This year’s finalists, for example, have made cutting-edge discoveries that include “reversing” bacterial evolution to fight antibiotic resistance; creating stretchable biological fibers that can be used in artificial muscles; improving algorithms to analyze visual data; developing new methods to use light to control chemical reactions; designing novel 2D and 3D polymers; and driving radical advances that can impact water purification, renewable energy and building materials, and next generation electronics.

“The world has never needed scientists more than right now,” said Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, head of the Blavatnik Family Foundation and member of the President’s Council of the New York Academy of Sciences. “In these challenging times, the work of these impressive young scientists offers us hope. Their research will lead to solutions—new inventions, discoveries, and ideas—that will endow society with the tools needed to surmount the difficult challenges our world currently is faced with. We are very proud to honor them.” 

The physical sciences are among the founding disciplines of UC San Diego, established in 1960. Today, all three graduate programs in the Division of Physical Sciences—chemistry and biochemistry, physics and mathematics—are ranked among the top 20 in the U.S., according to U.S. News and World Report.