Science takes center stage at LSC with Genius Gala XI

Liberty Science Center CEO Hoffman said STEM has never been more valued

Paul Hoffman, the CEO of the Liberty Science Center and the biggest cheerleader in the state of all things STEM, certainly was in the mood to celebrate Monday night during Genius Gala XI.

Record crowds at the event — and in the past year at LSC — will generate that emotion.

“It’s so rewarding,” he said.

For Hoffman, however, the joy goes much deeper than crowd totals. Just a few years after being forced to shut down by the pandemic — seemingly putting his big dreams at risk — Hoffman and LSC have never been closer to their ultimate goals.

It’s not just that LSC has broken ground on both SciTech Scity and the Liberty Science Center High School — both of which hope to open in 2025 — but, there is also a sense that the value of science, innovation and exploration has never been greater.

“We all saw how important science was during the pandemic — and how it is tied up with so many of our global challenges,” Hoffman said. “We want to be a focus of that, creating this ecosystem of people, companies, entrepreneurs, elected officials and community members that want to use science and technology to solve our greatest challenges in the human race.”

As it always does, the Genius Gala celebrated scientists who already are doing such great things.

Uma Valeti, Katalin Kariko and John Mather were honored for their extraordinary efforts, with the biggest cheers going to Kariko, who was instrumental in the creation of an mRNA vaccine — which led to a vaccine for COVID-19.

Hoffman said Kariko, who received a standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute, is the ultimate example of scientific perseverance and determination.

A native of Hungary from parents of limited education, she emigrated to the U.S., where she struggled to gain acceptance and funding — and was even fired as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

In accepting the award with grace and humility, Kariko even thanked those who made her life miserable, as she said.

“They made me work harder,” she told the crowd.

Hoffman said the entire world owes her a debt of gratitude. More may be coming.

While her creation is best known for being the technology that spurred two of the COVID-19 vaccines, it currently is being tested for other vaccines and potentially could help create vaccines for AIDS, malaria and other viruses.

Kariko wasn’t the only one recognized for efforts that could change the globe.

Valeti, the co-founder of Upside Foods, was recognized for creating the first meat cultivated directly from animal cells — creating a taste and texture that is more similar to what consumers want.

Valeti, a famed cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic earlier in his career, has long been fascinated by food. He now devotes his life to the creation of a product that not only could save the world billions of gallons of water daily (needed for animals) and a massive reduction in greenhouse gases (approximately 14%), he feels his invention eventually could bring an end to the idea that you have “to kill to eat” while producing a product that is more affordable and sustainable.

While Valeti is looking forward, the third honoree — Mather — is looking back. As in, back in time.

Mather’s work on the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite (with George Smoot) confirmed the Big Bang theory. He’s now the senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, a world-changing tool that already is revealing new insights into the celestial world.

The three honorees bring the list of Genius honorees to 34. And, with Scitech Scity and the LSC High School coming soon, Hoffman hopes LSC will help create the next generation of such big thinkers and thought leaders.

It can’t afford not to.

On a night designed to celebrate the best of science — and to appreciate the value of science — Hoffman acknowledged not everyone wants to come to the party.

“For me, it’s sad that there’s also an anti-science element in this country,” he said. “I’ve been in this field, science communication, my whole life. I’ve never seen it like this.

“That’s why it’s all the more important to celebrate science. We owe it to the next generation to leave the planet in a condition that we all want to live in — and one that’s equitable. Science really can make a difference.

“So, I’m optimistic about the future, but we have our challenges.”