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From cosmos to cancer, Franklin Institute honors farsighted scientists

More than 1,400 light-years away, in a constellation named for its likeness to a swan, lies a planet a lot like Earth. Called Kepler-452b, it orbits a star similar to our sun, at just the right distance so that its surface temperature would allow the presence of liquid water.

William J. Borucki
William J. BoruckiRead more

More than 1,400 light-years away, in a constellation named for its likeness to a swan, lies a planet a lot like Earth. Called Kepler-452b, it orbits a star similar to our sun, at just the right distance so that its surface temperature would allow the presence of liquid water.

We would have no idea it was out there, along with more than 1,000 other planets discovered in the last six years, but for the stubbornness of William J. Borucki.

The NASA astronomer is one of eight new winners of the annual awards bestowed by the Franklin Institute being announced Thursday.

They include Shu Chien, who tackles heart disease as if it were a physics problem, and Robert S. Langer, a prominent chemical engineer whose lab is a veritable spawning ground for biotech start-up companies. Langer's work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has yielded treatments for dozens of diseases, including implants for targeted delivery of cancer drugs.

Other winners are being celebrated for work on such diverse topics as computer microprocessors, earthquakes, and DNA. They will come to Philadelphia in April for four days of events, including one high-energy morning at the Franklin Institute when they field questions from any schoolchildren who wander by.

As is increasingly the case in science, the honorees are skilled at crossing the divides between research disciplines, said Frederic Bertley, the institute's senior vice president who oversees the awards program.

"They are modern Benjamin Franklins," said Bertley, an immunologist by training.

Chien, for example, is a physician with a Ph.D. in physiology, but is widely thought of as an engineer for his work at the University of California, San Diego.

Among his latest efforts, announced in September in the journal Nature: nanoparticles that can be used to deliver drugs for heart disease, cloaked in human platelet membranes so as to avoid detection by the immune system.

More than 100 Franklin winners also have won Nobel Prizes, most recently this year, when 2007 Franklin winner Arthur B. McDonald was chosen for the Nobel in physics.

Borucki, the astronomer, is one of that rare breed who got the only job he ever wanted coming out of college, at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., where he has remained for 53 years.

Of the eight Franklin awards, his is the only one that comes with a cash prize, $250,000.

Borucki's early research focused on lightning and planetary atmospheres. In the early 1980s, he started tackling the problem that would make him famous: detecting planets too far away to be seen by telescope.

The idea was to detect such planets indirectly, by looking for stars that temporarily shone just a bit less brightly. If any of these dimming events happened on a regular basis, it could indicate a transit - a planet passing in front.

Not everyone at the agency shared his enthusiasm. His proposals to search for stars in this manner were rejected on four occasions, with technical challenges cited as the reason.

Each time, he and colleagues came back with additional research to show that the task was feasible, and were finally rewarded with a thumbs-up in 2000.

"People say I'm persistent," said Borucki, who retired from full-time status at NASA in July but remains as an associate.

The team's tool was a space-based telescope, named Kepler after the German scientist whose 17th-century calculations explained planets' motion.

The scope was launched in 2009, capturing data on thousands of stars simultaneously, and in just a few years, the results have transformed astronomy.

To date, scientists have used Kepler's data to find more than 4,500 potential planets, of which more than 1,000 have subsequently been confirmed with other methods.

More than a dozen have since been identified as Earthlike, including Kepler-452b, in the constellation Cygnus. That means they are close to Earth in size and are at the right distance from a sunlike star in order to allow the presence of liquid water - considered a prerequisite for life.

Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, practically gushed when asked to characterize Borucki's accomplishments.

"He has now opened the door in a way that hadn't been done before to the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe," Pitts said. "Are we alone?"

For the record, Pitts thinks we are not, in part because some of the newly found planets have been around for eons longer than Earth. But a lot of work remains to get closer to the answer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the work of Chien, who applies the principles of engineering to heart disease.

He is among a dozen or so researchers who are members of all three national academies - in the sciences, medicine, and engineering.

Chien's recent work has included the study of how variations in blood flow affect the walls of surrounding arteries.

Disturbances in pressure and flow, he has found, can lead to changes in the way certain genes are expressed, yielding proteins that can contribute to atherosclerosis - known as hardening of the arteries.

A certain amount of disturbance is unavoidable as arteries divide into smaller and smaller branches, but the goal is to maintain smooth flow as much as possible, he said.

Heart-bypass surgeons must keep that principle in mind when grafting a blood vessel around a clogged artery, carefully attaching it at an angle that will minimize disturbance, Chien said.

"I often say to the young scientists: 'Blood flow is just like human life,' " Chien said. "If you have a clear direction, then you are in good shape."


For more information on the awards, visit

Franklin Institute Awards


William J. Borucki

Bower Award in science

NASA Ames Research Center

Moffett Field, Calif.

Patrick Soon-Shiong

Bower Award for business leadership


Culver City, Calif.

Nadrian C. Seeman

Franklin Medal in Chemistry

New York University

New York City

Brian F. Atwater

Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science

U.S. Geological Survey

University of Washington, Seattle

Yale N. Patt

Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science

University of Texas, Austin

Solomon W. Golomb

Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering

University of Southern California

Los Angeles

Robert S. Langer

Franklin Medal in Life Science

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Mass.

Shu Chien

Franklin Medal in Mechanical Engineering

University of California, San Diego