For their research on spinal cord injuries and metallurgy, Yale engineering professors Erin Lavik and Ainissa Ramirez were recently honored as two of the 100 Top Young Innovators by Technology Review magazine.
The publication, based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, honored Lavik and Ramirez at the Emerging Technologies Conference Sept. 24 and 25. Lavik, who started teaching at Yale this semester, investigates the use of polymers and neural stem cells in aiding patients with spinal-cord injuries. Ramirez was recognized for her discovery of a “universal solder,” which bonds to almost any inorganic material, most importantly the oxides used in manufacturing semiconductors.
Each year, Technology Review’s editors and a panel of judges select 100 individuals under age 35 for their innovations in biotechnology, medicine, nanotechnology, telecommunications and other industries. Past recipients include Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, iMac designer Jonathan Ive, and PayPal co-founder of Max Levchin.
Yale Faculty of Engineering Dean Paul Fleury said although the award is relatively new, it is quite prestigious. The magazine chooses the recipients from an international body of candidates who are nominated by their colleagues. A revolving panel of researchers, past winners, Nobel laureates and industry experts then make the final decisions.
“This award gives strong recognition, prestige and international visibility to its recipients,” Fleury said. “If you track past winners, many of the winners in the first years of the competition are already heading their own companies.”
Lavik’s great research breakthrough came when she injected polymer scaffolds, seeded with neural stem cells, into the spinal cords of paralyzed rats. To her surprise, the rats recovered significantly and were even able to walk again, she said.
“It was clear from the literature that if you created the right environment, the spinal cord can repair itself,” Lavik said. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What is the healthy environment [for spinal cord regeneration] and how do we create it?'”
Although repairing spinal cord injuries in humans poses a greater challenge than doing so in rats, Lavik said she hopes to use her techniques to aid the 10,000 Americans who suffer from spinal cord injuries.
“I came to a point where I wanted to do something that had a real impact,” she said. “Studying things for their own sake is cool, but I really wanted, conceivably, to make a real difference.”
Ramirez, who specializes in mechanical engineering, researches the development of materials for applications in microelectro-mechanical systems, optoelectronics, and the study of mechanical properties of thin films. She has discovered what Technology Review called “a long-sought prize of metallurgy.”
“I think I’ve brought excitement to unsexy materials like solder,” Ramirez said in a Yale press release. “As a new professor at Yale, I plan to continue my efforts in improving understanding of materials on a small scale and to finding ways to get lay audiences excited about science.”
Fleury said he was delighted at the recognition Lavik and Ramirez have received at such early stages in their careers.
“Everyone here is extremely happy for them,” he said. “Regardless of whether they’re in the same field, researchers here recognize the value of what this [award] represents.”
In addition, Fleury said he was delighted that Yale had not just one winner, but two.
“Many institutions are happy to have one winner each year,” Fleury said. “It’s quite unusual to have two winners. Especially in a small [engineering] program like Yale’s, it’s extraordinary.”