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Penn RNA pioneers and COVID-19 vaccine makers are among winners of Franklin Institute awards

The science museum is honoring 13 people in nine categories.

The Franklin Institute is honoring 13 people for achievement in science and business. Left to right, top to bottom: Paul Slovic, Stephane Bancel, Albert Bourla, Alex Gorsky, Kafui Dzirasa, Sheldon Weinbaum, Carol V. Robinson, Sallie W. Chisholm, P. Daniel Dapkus, Russell D. Dupuis, Drew Weissman, Katalin Kariko, Edward C. Stone
The Franklin Institute is honoring 13 people for achievement in science and business. Left to right, top to bottom: Paul Slovic, Stephane Bancel, Albert Bourla, Alex Gorsky, Kafui Dzirasa, Sheldon Weinbaum, Carol V. Robinson, Sallie W. Chisholm, P. Daniel Dapkus, Russell D. Dupuis, Drew Weissman, Katalin Kariko, Edward C. StoneRead moreFranklin Institute

Two decades ago, a pair of University of Pennsylvania scientists launched a series of experiments that would pave the way for the first COVID-19 vaccines. During the last year, manufacturers have turned that research into reality, producing enough doses to prevent millions of deaths and hospitalizations.

Yet nearly two years after the first reports of infection from a new coronavirus, plenty of people still underestimate its risk, rejecting vaccines, masks, and other measures that could bring the pandemic under control.

On Tuesday, the Franklin Institute recognized all those elements of the struggle to contain COVID, announcing the annual winners of its awards in science and business leadership.

The 13 honorees include Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, the much-decorated Penn duo whose work with messenger RNA forms the basis of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Also on the list are the chief executive officers of those two companies, along with the CEO of a third vaccine maker, Johnson & Johnson.

Then there’s University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, who has spent his career studying a phenomenon that seems especially relevant during the pandemic: psychic numbing. He argues that this state of mind, along with other cognitive biases, has warped our perception of risk, and he has outlined strategies to set us straight.

The winners are sharing a total of nine awards, to be given at the Franklin Institute’s traditional black-tie ceremony May 5. The science museum has awarded prizes to scientists and inventors since the 1820s, among them Marie and Pierre Curie, Orville Wright, Thomas Edison, Jane Goodall, and Stephen Hawking.

Larry Dubinski, president and chief executive officer of the institute, said the newest award recipients are being recognized at a moment when rigorous science is as important as ever.

“These achievements come at a critical time for us all,” he said. “If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that science matters.”

The winners are:

Bower Award for Achievement in Science, Paul Slovic, University of Oregon and Decision Science Research Institute. The psychologist has found that during the pandemic, people have responded to public-health guidance much as they respond to another broadscale threat that defies quick fixes: climate change. Writing with Wharton School researcher Howard Kunreuther, he says that in both cases, too many of us are “myopic, failing to see the value of taking immediate action to reduce predicted severe future consequences.” Better messaging is needed to drive home the potential consequences for individuals, coupled with well-designed policies and incentives to guide behaviors that protect the community at large, they say.

Bower Award for Business Leadership, Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna; Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer; and Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson. In January 2020, within weeks of the reports of a new respiratory illness in China, the three drugmakers began designing and testing vaccines. Even before the first results from large-scale studies emerged later that year, the companies lined up production facilities and now have supplied the world with billions of doses. But with vaccination rates remaining low in developing countries, regulators are under increasing pressure to waive the companies’ patents — potentially allowing others to make the vaccines as well.

NextGen Award: Kafui Dzirasa, Duke University Medical Center. A psychiatrist and engineer, Dzirasa studies how electrical signals in the brain contribute to mental health disorders. Working with laboratory mice, he and colleagues have created “an electrical map of depression in the brain” — hoping to use it as a predictive tool, much the way blood-pressure monitors can be used to gauge a person’s risk of a heart attack or stroke. They also have used electrodes to target circuits in the mouse brain, “dialing” an animal’s mood up and down.

The awards also include Franklin Medals in the following disciplines:

Biomedical engineering: Sheldon Weinbaum, City College of New York. Weinbaum studies the physics of the human body: how bones respond to mechanical forces, what causes plaque to rupture in diseased arteries, and how heat is transferred between blood vessels and surrounding tissue. He also has been a longtime advocate for women and people of color in science and engineering. In the 1990s, he was the lead plaintiff and organizer of a class-action lawsuit that accused New York state officials of racially discriminatory funding in its universities.

Chemistry: Carol V. Robinson, University of Oxford. The chemist is a pioneer in the use of mass spectrometry to decipher the three-dimensional architecture of protein complexes. She was the first female professor in her field at the University of Cambridge and later broke the same barrier at Oxford. In 2013, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Earth and environmental science: Sallie W. Chisholm, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A joint professor of engineering and biology, she is best known for her 1988 discovery of bacteria that produce more than half the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. Chisholm went on to study the organism’s genetic code, its impact on ocean ecosystems, and how it responds to climate change.

Electrical engineering: Russell D. Dupuis, Georgia Institute of Technology, and P. Daniel Dapkus, University of Southern California. The pair are being recognized for developing a technique called metalorganic chemical vapor deposition, which is widely used in the production of LEDs for flat-screen TVs, solar panels, and other electronic devices.

Life science: Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, University of Pennsylvania. Between them, the duo have earned more than a dozen awards since the development of COVID vaccines based on their work with RNA. But when they began collaborating in the late 1990s, research on RNA was widely perceived as a dead end. Through a process of trial and error, the two scientists learned to tweak the genetic molecules so they could be used to deliver instructions for the production of proteins. Karikó is now at BioNTech SE, the German company that joined with Pfizer to produce the first vaccine authorized in the United States. The RNA platform also is being explored to deliver treatments for cancer and heart disease.

Physics: Edward C. Stone, California Institute of Technology. A physics professor, Stone is best known for overseeing NASA’s Voyager project, which consisted of two spacecrafts that have transformed scientists’ understanding of the solar system. Among other findings, the program captured the first images of rings that encircle Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. Team members also discovered that Neptune radiates more than twice as much energy as it receives from the sun, a phenomenon that remains poorly understood.