The Liberty Science Center’s Genius Gala is an annual celebration of some of the brightest minds from around the country — and around the globe. It’s an appreciation of visionary scientific achievement that normally draws an A-list of New Jersey business, political and philanthropic leaders, who are awed and inspired by the Genius Award honorees.
This year, it’s going to be a little bit different.
In addition to being virtual for the first time in its nine-year history, the event — which will be held tonight at 8 — also will honor the creativity and ingenuity of women and men of science who have made breakthrough innovations in applied science.
Liberty Science Center CEO Paul Hoffman puts it another way.
“This challenging year has shown how much we need science,” he said.
“Whether it’s those who have been pioneering innovation in the form of life-altering medical procedures, buildings we occupy or foods we enjoy, we’ve seen how ‘genius’ can transform everyday life. And, in the case of those in the race against the coronavirus, we are seeing ‘genius’ in action on a daily basis.”
Three Genius Award recipients will be joined at the virtual gala by four “COVID Challengers,” innovative scientists who are challenging the coronavirus and challenging misconceptions about the virus:
- Tal Zaks, chief medical officer at Moderna Therapeutics, will share his optimism about the first candidate for a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. to enter Phase III clinical trials;
- Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health and a research psychologist who studies the LGBTQ population, talks about Rutgers University’s work with the New Jersey Department of Health recruiting contact tracers, and his own research on the mental and physical health of LGBTQ individuals during COVID-19;
- Jeanette Kowalik, commissioner of public health for the city of Milwaukee, the first city to declare racism a public health crisis (now 80 cities and counties have followed Milwaukee’s lead), speaks about her department’s discovery early in the pandemic that middle-aged Black men were of greater risk for COVID-19 than Americans who had traveled internationally;
- George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and serial genomics entrepreneur, speaks about the DIY COVID-19 vaccine he administered to himself.
Of course, the event also will feature the presentation of the Genius Awards, LSC’s highest honor.
Three individuals will be honored:
- William Conan Davis, a pioneering Black food chemist whose research resulted in the development of instant mashed potatoes; “perfect,” evenly cooked potato chips; soft-serve ice cream; and the formula for Dasani bottled water. The 94-year-old Korean War veteran and Purple Heart recipient was inspired to pursue his chosen field after attending a workshop with George Washington Carver, the most prominent Black scientist and inventor of the 20th century. Davis is a professor emeritus in the Natural Sciences Department at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, where the science building bears his name.
- Jennifer A. Lewis, the Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The 56-year-old is a pioneer in 3D bioprinting whose team developed a method that allows for the creation of thick vascularized tissues and 3D organs such as a kidney, skin graft and even a human heart, using a custom-built 3D printer and unique inks that contain the building blocks of human tissue. One critical advance from her team is the engineering and construction of a network of tubes that mimic blood vessels. A vascular system to deliver nutrients throughout bio-printed tissue will be essential to its survival.
- Moshe Safdie, world-renowned architect and the principal of his eponymous architectural firm. Safdie’s work has spanned the globe, from Singapore, Jerusalem, Montreal and Boston, and is guided by the principle of bringing light, greenery and water into the world’s densest urban areas — or, as he has put it: “For everyone, a garden.” This vision is manifested in such works as the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, a trio of sweeping towers topped by an expansive green pavilion; and Jewel Changi Airport, where a four-story tiered garden surrounds the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the 130-foot Rain Vortex. The 81-year-old’s designs also include world-leading museums, such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; Virasat-e-Khalsa, the museum of Sikhism, in India; and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The night also will feature a number of prominent speakers and guests, including Gov. Phil Murphy, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and the reigning Miss America, Camille Schrier, who earned the title on the strength of her expertise as a biochemist and her advocacy for women in science and engineering.
While the event’s format will differ, its acknowledgement of the role science and STEM play in society will not, Hoffman said.
“Our 2020 Genius Award winners are visionary women and men of science who are busting paradigms,” he said. “Each personifies what it means to be a genius; each is using his or her exceptional intellectual and creative abilities to disrupt and innovate both in their respective fields, and, more importantly, for the betterment of humanity.”
Hoffman’s hope, as always, is that the event will spark a light in others.
“It’s a celebration of visionary scientific achievement in support of LSC’s mission to inspire and prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers,” he said.
Leaders of the business community play an important part in the Genius Gala:
- Michael Inserra, senior vice chair and Americas deputy managing partner, EY;
- Gary St. Hilaire, CEO and president, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
- Jennifer Chalsty, director, Advisory Council, James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute, John Hopkins University;
- Alma DeMetropolis, managing director, market manager – New Jersey, JPMorgan Private Bank, and president, New Jersey market leadership team;
- Josh Weston, honorary chairman, ADP.
- David Barry, CEO and president, Ironstate Development Co., and CEO and president, Urby;
- Christopher Boerner, executive vice president and chief commercialization officer, Bristol-Myers Squibb;
- Sheri Bronstein, chief human resources officer, Bank of America;
- David Daly, president and chief operating officer, Public Service Electric & Gas;
- Matthew Ellis, EVP and chief financial officer, Verizon Communications;
- Bruce Levy, CEO and president, BMR Energy;
- Jeffrey Mandler, co-founder and past CEO, CarePoint Health;
- Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, founder and president, Bedtime Math;
- John Overdeck, co-founder and co-chairman, Two Sigma;
- Carlos Rodriguez, CEO and president, ADP;
- Gregory Tusar, head of institutional product, Coinbase;
- Susan Keating and Norman Worthington, CEO and executive chairman, the Star2Star Communications and Blueface Cos.