Crossing disciplinary borders, supporting the next generation of researchers, and fostering the sustainable well-being of mankind
By Hui-Chen Lin
English translation by Wei-Hsin Lin (Tang Prize Foundation)
Different eras present challenges of their own, and it is usually because of a group of people of action who, with great foresight, with dreams, and with indomitable spirit, set high expectations for themselves and make full commitment to what they do, so that new solutions can be found and vistas to a brighter future can be opened up. They are pioneers of their generations. Their firm convictions motivate them to overcome obstacles and explore new possibilities. Whether it is about environmental sustainability, ecological conservation, scientific advances, equality and justice, or the protection of human rights, there is no doubt that this world has become a better place because of their capacity for greatness. When the achievements of these prominent individuals have transcended the boundaries of their own fields and helped facilitate the sustainable development of human society and civilization, or when their ideas can influence the whole humanity, it is only natural that we became curious about what is constantly on their minds and what their deepest wishes are. The answers might just lie in the research projects Tang Prize laureates carried out using the grant provided by the Tang Prize Foundation.
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, winner of the inaugural Tang Prize in Sustainable Development, is best known for helping define the concept of “sustainable development” in an official report published by the United Nations in 1987. A climate change and public health activist, she validated her reputation as the godmother of sustainable development through her deep concerns about the long-term sustainability of remote and disadvantaged communities. Thus, she allocated half of the grant to the Milgis Trust to protect elephants in Kenya. After five years of efforts, not only has the region in northern Kenya once again been frequented by wildlife such as elephants and lions, local residents have also become more conscious of the importance of natural conservation. Another half of the grant was used to set up the “Gro Brundtland Award,” which in the span of three years was given to in total 15 outstanding female researchers in the fields of public health and sustainable development, in hopes that this new generation of women can share Dr. Brundtland’s belief and exert positive influence, improve public health, raise awareness about women and children’s well-being, and pursue sustainable development in the developing countries where they are from.
Different from Dr. Brundtland in terms of her determination to take every opportunity to plant the seeds of her dreams and visions in every corner of the world, many laureates in the Biopharmaceutical Science category adopted an alternative approach and decided to pass on the torch to future scientists by helping them build a solid foundation. Dr. James Allison, laureate of the 2014 prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, had noticed some key functions of our immune system long before immunotherapy excited the attention of practicing physicians, whose lack of interest was mainly due to the mysteries surrounding certain cellular mechanisms that can only be unlocked with breakthroughs in basic research. They were the missing pieces of the puzzle scientists had yet to find. Dr. Allison knows very well how important it is for physicians to devote themselves to basic research in order to resolve bottlenecks in cancer treatment more efficiently. Therefore, he used his grant to recruit MD Anderson Cancer Centre’s first physician-scientist who, with strong background in fundamental immunology, would have her own laboratory and would be further equipped to secure long-term funding from America’s National Institutes of Health to support her research endeavors.
Dr. Tony Hunter, who was awarded the 2018 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, is credited with giving birth to the idea of targeted therapies through the discovery of tyrosine phosphorylation and showing that the Src oncoprotein is a tyrosine kinase. Given the fact that there are still a huge number of cell signaling pathways and hundreds of kinases with unknown functions that are worth investigating, Dr. Hunter hopes that researchers who follow in his footsteps will be able to extend the boundaries of this field. To nurture young talent, he turned his grant into a fellowship that has provided stipends and benefits to two female post-doctoral fellows to carry out basic research in the area of signal transduction and cancer at the Salk Institute. Dr. Feng Zhang moved to the United States with his family and came to love biology after being inspired by the education he received during his middle school years there. After winning the 2016 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science, he appointed The Society for Science and the Public to manage his fund. Consequently, “The Feng Zhang Fund for STEM Education and Outreach” was established with the aim of promoting the study of biopharmaceutical science among high school students.
It has long been a fact that contributions which have had great impact on mankind’s wellbeing, like medical breakthroughs, were usually made by a few key figures. It’s also worth noting that when these visionary scientists were working hard to realize their dreams, they never lost sight of the missions they gave themselves in the first place, including to promote education, to pass on their knowledge, and to support and guide the next generation of researchers. For English philosopher R.S. Peters, education is a process that transmits something worthwhile, involves knowledge and understanding, and includes some acceptable procedures. For Tang Prize laureates, it is a process that brings together people with the same convictions so as to make a more profound difference to the world.