2019 Science Awards: Golden Geese and Geniuses Galore!

Charlotte Mineo, Sci/Tech Editor

The Golden Goose award was founded in 2012 and recognizes seemingly odd federally-funded research that has had an outsized impact on science and society. According to the Golden Goose homepage, Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee advocated for the Golden Goose awards to celebrate the incredible benefits reaped from research that at first glance may seem irrelevant.

This year’s grantees were David Sachar, Noel Rose and Ernest Witebsky, Jack Levin and Frederik Bang. Each was responsible for major innovations in medicine and biomedical research. Some of their discoveries are so ubiquitous today that it becomes easy to overlook the intense effort needed to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

Sachar is a poignant example: He studied Cholera, a life-threatening illness that causes severe dehydration. In the 1950’s and 60’s most scientists thought that the cholera toxins “poisoned sodium channels,” preventing the body from maintaining an appropriate balance of water and salts, and implying that oral rehydration would be rendered ineffective. Sachar was sent to Denmark by his superiors to use frog skin as a model to learn to measure electrical potentials within the human intestine. He learned enough from this seemingly tangential technique that he adopted the procedure to cholera patients. He discovered that adding glucose to salts and water can significantly increase the rate of rehydration. This finding overturned the dogma on cholera and led to the widespread adoption of Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT). The journal Lancet described the work of Sachar and his collaborator Hirschhorn’s work as “potentially the most important scientific advance of the 20th century.”

MacArthur “genius grants”

Not everyone’s work can be “the most important,” but 600,000 dollars and getting called a genius seems like a close second. Several tremendous researchers were commended with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” CNN reports that each winner receives more than half a million dollars to invest in their research projects. 26 individuals in fields ranging from theater, to urban design, to theoretical geophysics were recognized this fall for their remarkable talent and originality.

Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) “genius grant” recipients listed on the MacArthur site included paleoclimatologist Andrea Dutton, marine scientist Stacy Jupiter, plant biologist Zachary Lippman, theoretical geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica, neuroscientist Vanessa Ruta and evolutionary geneticist Jenny Tung.

Lippman, of Cold Springs Harbor Labs studies the genes that regulate plant stem cells. His work has revealed some of the mechanisms regulating branch and flower formation in plants. Using the novel insights of his team, plant scientists will be able to design or breed more efficient and environmentally crops.

At Harvard, Mitrovica has worked to understand a variety of geological questions. According to the Harvard Mitrovica Lab website, his work has resulted in new models to estimate how climate change and ice ages have altered sea levels.

In 2015, the New York Times found that, unlike with lottery recipients, these huge sums are usually put to good use by MacArthur fellows. Some used the money to improve their work-life balance by paying for help around the home. Others invested the money directly into their research projects by incentivizing their students or buying supplies. While these awards are incredible opportunities for the recipients, they often exclude important contributors. The Atlantic reports that by recognizing only a select number of recipients, and not the immense teams that have contributed to the groundbreaking work, scientific prizes can give a false impression of how science works. This is especially controversial with Nobel Prizes, which are set to be announced later this month.