Three Stanford professors honored by Breakthrough Prize Foundation

Karl Deisseroth has been awarded a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in life sciences for his pioneering work in optogenetics. Stanford Physicists Xiao-Liang Qi and Leonardo Senatore won New Horizons in Physics Prizes for their outstanding contributions to fundamental physics.

Karl Deisseroth at microphone with prize

Karl Deisseroth accepts the Breakthrough Prize in life sciences onstage during the ceremony Sunday in Mountain View, Calif. (Image credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

Three Stanford professors were awarded prizes by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation during a star-studded award ceremony Sunday night.

Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, won a $3 million 2016 Breakthrough Prize in life sciences for his contributions to the development of optogenetics, a technique that uses light to control the behavior of cells and has proved especially invaluable in the study of nerve-cell circuits in the brain.

Two Stanford physicists were awarded New Horizons in Physics Prizes, each of which are paired with a $100,000 prize. Xiao-Liang Qi, an associate professor of physics was recognized for “outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics, especially involving the use of topology to understand new states of matter.” Leonardo Senatore, an assistant professor of physics, was honored for his “outstanding contributions to theoretical cosmology.”

The awards were presented Sunday night at a private black-tie, star-studded ceremony in an airplane hangar at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif. Seth MacFarlane, actor and creator of the animated TV series Family Guy, emceed the ceremony, and singer Pharrell Williams performed for the many Silicon Valley and Hollywood luminaries in attendance.

“The Breakthrough Prize recognizes contributions to science that will inspire and encourage others. The innovative work of professors Deisseroth, Qi and Senatore indeed ignites that thrill of discovery as they seek to solve the greatest mysteries within our vast universe, and within the universe of our brain,” said Stanford President John Hennessy. “Karl Deisseroth’s pioneering work in optogenetics proves the value of tackling deep problems across disciplines. And we are immensely proud that two physics faculty members, still at the outset of their promising careers, have been recognized as catalysts in their field. On behalf of the entire Stanford community, I congratulate them all and thank them for their brilliant example.”

Revolutionary brain science

Optogenetics is a breakthrough laboratory methodology that allows scientists to precisely manipulate nerve-cell activity in freely moving animals to study their behavior. The technique, pioneered by Deisseroth, uses light to control the messages traveling along selected nerve cells and pathways.

“The suffering of the mentally ill and the mysteries of the brain are so deep that, to make progress, we need to take big risks and blind leaps,” Deisseroth said. “The members of my lab have taken a leap: borrowing genes from microbes to control the brain.”

The work requires the mastery of several scientific disciplines. Genetic-engineering techniques are employed to insert genes for photosensitive proteins called microbial opsins into specific nerve cells of living animals. The opsins coat the surfaces of these cells, which can then be activated or inhibited by pulses of laser light that, at the flip of the experimenter’s switch, are transmitted by a hair-thin optical fiber implanted in a laboratory animal’s brain. Scientists can observe the effects of these manipulations on the animal’s behavior and deduce the role played by particular nerve cells, relays and circuits.

“Optogenetics’ biggest impact by far has been in enabling thousands of discoveries about how neural circuits control behavior,” Deisseroth said in an interview. “I hope this technology will continue to be used to discover many more principles of nervous-system function, in health and in neurological and psychiatric disease.”

Lloyd Minor, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine, praised Deisseroth for his innovative and fearless approach to research.

“The human brain has been called the most complicated object in the universe, but that hasn’t daunted Karl’s quest to understand it,” Minor said. “If anything it seems the challenge has inspired him to develop techniques to see inside this most important of black boxes. This passion to understand the mind, combined with his intelligence and creativity, led to his pioneering role in creating optogenetics.”

Deisseroth will join this year’s other Breakthrough Prize winners in giving lectures Nov. 9 at a symposium at the University of California Berkeley. He is one of five prizewinners in the life-sciences category, each of whom received $3 million in unrestricted funds. The event will be livestreamed here.

New phases of matter

Qi and Senatore were awarded New Horizons in Physics Prizes, funded by the Milner Foundation, which go annually to promising junior researchers who have already produced important work. This year New Horizons in Physics Prizes were awarded to three groups of researchers, a total of six scientists.

Qi’s research focuses on gaining better understanding of the nature of topological phenomena in condensed matter physics. Topological states of matter are new quantum phases of matter that are qualitatively different from previous known states of matter. Qi’s work involves various aspects of understanding topological states, including theoretical predictions of physical properties, general description, and the prediction of materials.

One of Qi’s notable works was his role in the description of topological insulators by observing its physical properties. The research team showed that this new state of matter is deeply related to very fundamental physics, such as transmutation between electric field and magnetic field, and magnetic monopoles. They also predicted that such topological states exist in every spatial dimension, forming a much bigger family than previously expected.

Topological insulators are one of the most exciting topics in condensed-matter physics, with a wide range of potential practical applications, such as novel spintronic devices and topological quantum computation. Some of the materials predicted by Qi’s group have been shown experimentally to be among the best topological insulator materials known so far.

Qi’s more recent research interest involves understanding quantum entanglement and its relation to space-time geometry. The emerging new paradigm is that quantum information and its structure is the key to understand space-time geometry, and therefore quantum gravity.

“I am, needless to say, very honored to receive this prestigious prize together with Liang Fu and B. Andrei Bernevig,” Qi said. “In addition, I am particularly happy because the Breakthrough Prize and New Horizon Prize are for fundamental physics. What we learned in the past 10 years is that there are deep connections between condensed matter physics and fundamental physics. Such a deep connection between different branches of physics often indicates new fundamental discoveries are on the horizon. I am glad that my work is part of this effort, and I am working more in this exciting direction.”

Understanding the birth of the universe

Senatore is a cosmologist who studies the conditions that birthed the universe, specifically the quick instances when it was as small as a ping pong ball to when it rapidly inflated to the expanse we see today. That inflation created small ripples of energy across the universe, which were gravitationally attracted to one another such that they became larger and larger ripples, and eventually formed the galaxies.

This period of exponential growth cannot be explained through the laws of physics we know, but the faint whispers of those ancient initial ripples might hold clues. The shape and distribution of the ripples could offer information about how inflation happened, but first scientists need to figure out what to look for. Senatore’s research is devoted to describing the exotic forms of matter that might have driven this inflation, and theorizing and predicting what the cosmic signatures of these actions might look like today.

He said he was very grateful for the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, because one of the constant challenges of theoretical cosmology is that no matter how beautiful your calculations might be, proving them through experiment can be exceedingly challenging.

“The work I tend to do is very novel, and it can be difficult to get it recognized,” said Senatore, who joined Stanford faculty in 2010 and shares this prize recognition with Raphael Flauger. “I think this award will help the theories and techniques I’ve developed to hopefully become more widespread in the community.”

Senatore dashed straight home from his office to celebrate with his wife when he got the news of the prize, and they plan to continue the celebration by going on vacation. “I think we will upgrade to a four-star hotel,” he said with a smile.

The Breakthrough Prizes, initiated in 2013, honor prominent individuals in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics. 

Nearly $22 million in prizes were awarded tonight, and to date, over $160 million in Breakthrough Prize money has been handed out. The annual prizes are funded by grants from the Brin Wojcicki Foundation, established by Google founder Sergey Brin and 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s foundation; and DST Global founder Yuri Milner’s foundation. Recipients are chosen by committees comprised of prior prizewinners.

Media Contacts

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944; bccarey@stanford.edu
Bruce Goldman, Stanford School of Medicine: (650) 725-2106; goldmanb@stanford.edu