In Discovery Prize, a best chance to speak their minds

Well said: Il Memming Park, an assistant professor in the Renaissance School of Medicine's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, says it all at the 2019 Discovery Prize finals.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Effective science communication won the day Tuesday, when Stony Brook University hosted the final round of its 2019 Discovery Prize Competition.

Designed specifically to teach next-level scientists how to best communicate their advanced theories and discoveries, the Discovery Prize competition naturally featured some heady science – including the winning project, which dives deep into machine learning concepts by creating computational models of the unconscious human brain.

But explaining such intricate scientific concepts was the name of the game – and the path to the grand prize of $200,000 in research funding, captured this year by Renaissance School of Medicine neurobiologist Il Memming Park and three SBU research colleagues.

Open to all SBU faculty and researchers, the Discovery Prize was established in 2013 with a donation from the Stony Brook Foundation Board of Trustees. The idea is to “advance pioneering scientific breakthroughs at a time when the primary source of support for basic research (i.e., the federal government) is dwindling,” according to the university.

Good company: Il Memming Park (left) is congratulated by James Simons (center) and SBU President Samuel Stanley Jr.

That theme was reinforced Tuesday by Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley Jr., who noted that “our nation’s vitality and competitiveness depend on the many discoveries made at research universities.”

“It is critical that we continue to support fundamental, curiosity-driven research and encourage our ambitious early-career faculty to pursue audacious ideas,” Stanley said, adding such research has “the potential to transform lives and our understanding of the world around us.”

Park’s high-risk, high-reward mind-mapping model was crowned by a distinguished panel of judges that included Simons Foundation Chairman James Simons, the founder of East Setauket-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies and former chairman of the SBU Department of Mathematics.

Joining Simons on the panel were Nobel Laureate Michael Brown, a distinguished chair and professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and Barry Coller, chief physician and vice president for medical affairs
 at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

Tuesday’s finalists included researcher Melanie Chiu of SBU’s Department of Chemistry, who leads a research group studying chemical reactions to devise methods of combining molecules into larger constructs; Sandeep Mallpattu, whose School of Medicine laboratory investigates kidney disease’s molecular mechanisms; and Department of Chemistry researcher Ming-Nu Ngai, on a mission to create a solar-powered technology that converts carbon dioxide into useful chemicals.

Alan Alda: Learning the lingo.

As part of the Discovery Prize format, the contestants worked with public-speaking experts at SBU’s Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is dedicated to improving science and medicine communication.

Award-winning actor Alan Alda, namesake of and visiting professor at the Alda Center for Communicating Science, said the impressive Discovery Prize finalists embodied the spirit and purpose of the circa-2009 center.

“They presented their very complex research in clear and vivid language,” Alda said Tuesday. “As research becomes more interdisciplinary and funding sources change, they will need to communicate to a variety of audiences.

“And they are off to a great start,” the seven-time Emmy Award-winner added. “These young researchers have a lifetime of discovery ahead of them, and with a grounding in empathy for their audience, we now have a better chance of understanding their important work and impact.”

Creating a compelling-yet-academically rigorous pitch can be challenging for a researcher like Park, whose “Personalized Landscape of Unconsciousness” project aims to understand the brain at the highest levels. To do so, he works closely with experimentalists recording patterns in animal and human brains to uncover the hidden, internal-state dynamics of normal and abnormal cognition.

Park then designs “interpretable statistical models” and machine-learning methods “specialized for neural time series,” according to SBU.

It’s a mouthful, for sure. But with the help of the Discovery Prize competition, Park – an assistant professor in the Renaissance School of Medicine’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior – is better able to explain the science, giving him his best chance to secure the private funding needed to capitalize on his innovative work.

Of course, that $200,000 head start doesn’t hurt, either.

“I am exhilarated by winning the Discovery Prize,” Park said after Tuesday’s finals. “The award will help me get to the next stage of my research to understand the biological systems of the brain.”

“I am looking forward to expanding collaborations on this research with colleagues in neurobiology, neurosurgery and other disciplines at Stony Brook University.”