Caltech professor of chemistry Hosea Nelson (PhD '13) and alumna Elaine Y. Hsiao (PhD '13) are among the winners of the 2022 Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists.
The awards, given annually since 2007, are intended "to recognize and celebrate exceptional young scientists" in the life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and chemistry, and to provide "critical support to seed innovative work in science and technology that will address society's most pressing global problems," according to the award announcement.
Nelson, an organic chemist, is focused on improving methods for identifying chemical structures and developing chemical reactions using elements that are common and safe—like silicon, lithium, and boron—and allow for the efficient and sustainable synthesis of drugs and other human-made chemicals.
He popularized a technique known as microcrystal electron diffraction, or MicroED, a type of crystallography that is useful for characterizing chemicals that only form small crystals too tiny to be studied by traditional methods. MicroED is an offshoot of cryogenic electron microscopy, or cryo-EM, a technology that has typically been used to identify the arrangement of atoms in large biological molecules like proteins.
By extending cryo-EM to small molecules, Nelson has built "a foundation to dramatically accelerate the development of new drugs or commercial chemicals," notes his award citation.
"MicroED will give us a greater understanding of our chemical world," Nelson says. "We will be able to identify molecules from natural sources, synthetic molecules, and in general new chemical matter which can be used for medicines and materials that will ultimately and hopefully improve the human condition."
As a Caltech graduate student, Nelson worked in the laboratory of Brian Stoltz, Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry and Heritage Medical Research Institute Investigator. Nelson started his own lab at UCLA in 2015, but he returned to Caltech in 2021 as a professor of chemistry.
Nelson says his graduate studies at Caltech had a significant influence on his passion for discovery and creativity. "Caltech is a special place. Focus on research permeates all layers of the community, including undergraduate education, staff, facilities, everyone shares a vision of doing research. A lot of institutions have several focuses, whereas this institution is primarily focused on service to the community through research excellence. I like Caltech because there is very little barrier between trainees and faculty. I'm on a first-name basis with all the students that I work with. Everyone is an equal, from faculty to students. That's unique."
Elaine Y. Hsiao, an associate professor and De Logi Endowed Chair of Biological Sciences at UCLA, examines how metabolites produced in the gut microbiome interact with the brain, work that began during her graduate studies at Caltech in the laboratory of Sarkis Mazmanian, Luis B. and Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology. Among other discoveries, Hsiao has found that metabolites produced in the microbiome of pregnant women can have lasting neurological effects on their children in the future, research that could lead to improved maternal–fetal health and assessments of risk for neurodevelopmental disorders.
This year, 150 research institutions nominated 309 researchers for the awards. Thirty-one finalists were chosen, and three independent juries chose the final three laureates, a group that includes Conor Walsh, the Paul A. Maeder Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.