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The next generation of research excellence

by Alan Bernstein
Sep 7 / 16

Early career researchers are vital for scientific progress and advances in scholarly activity. They tackle questions with new eyes, and with energy and enthusiasm. Their fresh insights into old problems or questions often result in entirely new directions in research.

alan-bernstein-block211Most famously, James Watson was only 25 when he co-discovered the double helix nature of DNA, and his collaborators Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin were only 37 and 33, respectively.

But young researchers also work under tremendous disadvantages. They are at the start of their careers and are still developing the networks, and chasing the funding, that will allow them to do their research. They are likely to have heavy teaching loads. They are likely to be starting families. No matter how brilliant, they need all the help they can get.

For these reasons, CIFAR and the Azrieli Foundation have partnered to create the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars Program, a new program designed to nurture the careers of the world’s next research leaders. In the first round, we have selected 18 CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars, the first cohort in the program. These young researchers are no more than five years into their first academic appointments, and come from Austria, China, Israel, the United States and Canada.

They will become part of our network of researchers for the next two years, embedding themselves with our fellows, some of the most accomplished and experienced researchers in the world. We are convinced that the experience will help to make these young scholars leaders in their fields, and help them contribute to important research that will help answer important questions for the world.

The two-year appointments – made possible thanks to generous contributions from the Azrieli Foundation – include $100,000 in funding, mentorship by more senior researchers, and opportunities for training in leadership and communication. We intend this to be a valuable opportunity for excellent researchers to develop into the next generation of research leaders.

I had a chance to meet the candidates for the position during a three-day interview process in June. It was a stimulating get-together, and without exception I found these young people to be highly intelligent, articulate, enthusiastic and engaging. It was an energizing experience.

For instance, there was Alona Fyshe, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Victoria. Her lab explores how the human brain processes and represents language, and she is developing methods that allow computers to do the same thing. The work is an exciting combination of semantics, neurology and computer science, and promises to lead to computers that can understand and use language as naturally and as well as we do.

Ami Citri runs the Lab for Experience Dependent Plasticity at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He brings a multidisciplinary approach to understanding how the brain focuses on specific information from the world around us, and once it does, how the information is encoded in memories. The work will lead to better understanding of how people develop habits, compulsions and addictions.

Giulio Chiribella, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, is interested in developing a set of physical axioms that can be used to understand quantum information processing. His research, at the intersection between quantum mechanics and quantum computing, could lay the groundwork for a clearer understanding of quantum information processing.

These are just three of the new CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars. But all of them are equally impressive. I’m convinced they will be vital in helping to address the most critical challenges facing the world today. And I know they will contribute enthusiasm and insights into the CIFAR programs they will be joining. I’m pleased to welcome them to the CIFAR family of 400 fellows and advisors from around the world.