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The Oscars of science

Q & A with Breakthrough Prize recipient Mahlon DeLong
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Parkinson’s researcher Mahlon DeLong receives his $3 million Breakthrough Prize from Anne Wojcicki (of 23andme) and Sergey Brin (of Google). Photography by Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Scientists, not actors, were the honorees at this star-studded December event in the iconic NASA Hangar 1 in Silicon Valley.

While plenty of VIPs were in attendance, including Kevin Spacey, Glenn Close, Rupert Murdoch, and Conan O’Brien, the 2014 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences were awarded to celebrities of a different sort—scientists whose research is aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life.

Mahlon DeLong, William Timmie Professor of Neurology, received one of six Breakthrough awards for defining the interlocking circuits in the brain that malfunction in Parkinson’s disease. His research laid the groundwork for treatment of the disease by deep brain stimulation.

"This is our effort to put the spotlight on these amazing heroes," said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a founding sponsor. "Their work in physics and genetics, cosmology, neurology, and mathematics will change lives for generations."
 Breakthrough sponsors read like a Who’s Who of tech entrepreneurs: Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma, Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg, and Priscilla Chan. Brin and Wojcicki presented DeLong’s award for his research on Parkinson’s, which afflicts Brin’s mother. The $3 million that comes with each award has no strings attached. "They should make at least a fraction of what some Wall Street trader makes," said Milner.

DeLong shared a few thoughts about his Breakthrough Prize with Emory Medicine:

Is this award distinct from others you have received, and if so, why? 

Getting an award of this stature was an enormous honor. It was wonderful to meet the current and past awardees, a number of whom also have received the Nobel or other prestigious awards such as the Lasker Award or the Kavli Prize. But let me add, little happens in life without the efforts and support of others, from my students, fellows, and colleagues to my mentors and family.

Who were some of your mentors? 

My research career began at the National Institutes of Health in the remarkable laboratory and environment created by Edward Evarts, a true pioneer, who gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to work for five uninterrupted years in the uncharted waters of the basal ganglia, mysterious nuclei at the base of the brain.  

Which celebrities did you rub shoulders with at the ceremony?

I sat next to Rupert Murdoch and very much enjoyed meeting him. It was a star-studded occasion, done as if it were the Academy Awards. Meeting the founder of the Breakthrough Prize, Yuri Milner, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And the emcee, Kevin Spacey, was outstanding. I hadn’t realized he started out as a stand-up comedian who specialized in doing imitations—several of which he did very well for us.

How cool was the NASA hangar? 

The setting was surreal, with a stage and room created in the middle of the hangar, a skeleton of the original hangar for blimps pre- WWII. I recalled it well from my undergraduate years at Stanford.

What are your plans for the $3 million? 

First is sharing it with the IRS. I also want to support some of our ongoing efforts at Emory. [Indeed, DeLong immediately gave $250,000 to fellow Emory scientists studying Parkinson’s and other brain and movement disorders.]

What’s next for your research? 

I am very involved with the deep brain stimulation program and the Emory Neuromodulation and Technology Innovation Center (ENTICe), a new collaborative enterprise with neurology, psychiatry, and neurosurgery to develop technologies for treating neurological and psychiatric disorders.

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