World-renowned scientists speak at UC Berkeley during Breakthrough Prize Symposium

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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World-renowned scientists, including UC Berkeley professors Jennifer Doudna and Ian Agol, spoke at the annual Breakthrough Prize Symposium on Monday, sharing key insights on their discoveries and anticipating imminent challenges in their respective fields.

Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco jointly host the symposium each year. UC Berkeley held the daylong event of laureate talks and evening panel discussions, inspired by the idea of big questions in science and technology.

The event came after the awarding of this year’s Breakthrough Prize to eight scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View on Sunday, honoring their “paradigm-shifting research” in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics, according to the Breakthrough Prize website.

So far, three campus professors have won the Breakthrough Prize: Agol for math, Doudna for the life sciences and physics professor Saul Perlmutter for physics.

Sponsored by well-known figures in the tech industry such as Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, this year’s event was the seventh Breakthrough Prize Symposium to recognize the world’s top scientists by awarding prizes of $3 million to the recipients.  According to event staff, about 700 people registered for this event and 300 people attended the afternoon talks.

“It was a great opportunity for our campus to host the Breakthrough Prize Symposium and eminent scientists who received the Breakthrough Prize this year,” said Kaja Sehrt, senior director of development in the UC Berkeley Office of the Vice Chancellor For Research.

The symposium featured talks by the eight 2019 Breakthrough Prize winners, as well as by 2018 Special Breakthrough Prize awardee in fundamental physics Jocelyn Bell Burnell who contributed to the discovery of pulsars — rotating neutron stars. Past prize winners, such as Doudna, 2015 recipient for her CRISPR- Cas9 technology, also spoke at the event.

The ensuing panel discussions examined topics such as time travel, the limits of science and life in the universe, inspired by questions raised by late physicist and 2013 Breakthrough Prize winner Stephen Hawking in his last book, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions.”

Among the many speakers who presented their work and its future implications, Doudna spoke about the latest applications of CRISPR-Cas9. She also discussed its potential future, adding that there is a “very active topic of discussion” in how to address the ethical challenges the technology poses.

Phil Frankino, a third-year molecular and cell biology graduate student, said he found it great to have well-known figures, such as Doudna, speak and provide a general overview of different fields.

Luoping Zhang, adjunct professor of toxicology, said the event helped her gain a greater understanding of how to apply CRISPR-Cas9 in her own research on cancer and environmental exposure to toxic chemicals.

“I really think the Breakthrough Symposium is important in bringing great minds (together), not only on what they discovered but what’s in the future,” Zhang said.

Contact Sarah Chung at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sarahchungdc.