Once a year, Stony Brook University takes science to the competitive level with their Discovery Prize competition.
At the event, which took place April 13, four competitors presented their research to a panel of judges. The competition was established in 2014 with a donation from the Stony Brook Foundation board of trustees. This year at the university’s Charles B. Wang Center Theatre the panel of judges consisted of 2016 Nobel Laureate in physics from Princeton, F. Duncan Haldane, UC Berkeley’s director of the nuclear science division, professor Barbara Jacak, and chairman of the Simons Foundation and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, James H. Simons.
After a tough competition, Thomas Allison, assistant professor in the departments of chemistry and physics, won the $200,000 prize. Allison said all his competitors — Gabor Balazsi, associate professor at the Laufer Center for physical and quantitative biology; Matthew Reuter, assistant professor in the department of applied mathematics and statistics; and Neelima Sehgal, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy — did a great job.
Allison won for his concept called “Molecular Movies.” The technology he is working on will record the movement of molecules, which in turn can lead to the development of better high-tech devices.
“I was honored to be a part of it,” he said. “Obviously the result is great, and in general, it’s a great thing at Stony Brook.”
The competition is produced in collaboration with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and is described as a “Shark Tank” meets “TED Talk” type of event. Each contestant presents his or her research in approximately 10 minutes, and they must describe their project from the scientific approach to the potential impact of their research in a way an everyday person would understand it.
Allison said he has been working on his research for three years and was a bit nervous before his presentation. However, before the event contestants received coaching from communication experts at the Alan Alda Center, which he said was a big help.
“I just tried in the end to be clear, explain my project and what we’re trying to do, so I guess that got me through it,” he said.
When it comes to describing his project to a layperson, Allison said it all depends on how much a person is familiar with electrons.
“Mostly it’s just basic science,” he said. “You can think of it kind of like a microscope, so once you have this tool, then you can use the tool to try to make devices.”
Allison said his tool would be beneficial with any technology that uses molecules with electrons moving around because molecules are “excited” by light. He said the application could help in developing better technology such as solar cells, which are used for light absorption to produce electricity from sunlight, that use organic molecules instead of silicon.
“I’m not going to make a better solar cell,” Allison said. “What I would like to do is make a tool so that people who work on these things can make better solar cells or something. So it’s more about making the tool.”
After winning the prize, Allison said he will be able to pay for a new electron detector. The detector uses UV lights that make the electrons come out. He said the detector he has right now can only measure the energy of an electron and not its angle. However, a new one will be able to measure both at the same time, providing measurements that are more effective.
He said he has the same goal as those who are working on much larger scale projects, but he can achieve the same results with a less expensive light source as well as instruments.
The prize money will also allow him to hire a post doctorate student to work on the project, and the professor is glad that he now has the funding to spend more time in the lab and less time applying for grants.
“I’m looking forward to doing experiments, and the discovery fund was a big boost,” Allison said.