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Top Scientists of 2013

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It’s the start of a new calendar year, time for making New Year’s Resolutions, compiling ‘to do’ lists for 2014, and also looking back at all the memorable events and achievements of 2013. In this spirit, of 2013’s top scientists, naming 10 of most significant figures in the international scientific community last year.

Here’s a quick overview of those 10 top scientists and why they made headlines...

Feng Zhang

First up is neuroscientist Feng Zhang, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’s been involved in the development of a system of altering genomes in mice, rats and primates to aid research, disease modelling and develop treatments. The system is called CRISPR/Cas, and while Zhang is certainly not the only researcher involved in its development, he has been able to demonstrate the huge scope of its potential by showing it works in . Among upcoming projects, he says he’s most interested in using CRISPR to treat neuro­psychiatric conditions such as Huntington’s disease and schizophrenia, and is part of the new startup Editas Medicine, which will pursue therapeutic uses of the technology.

Tania Simoncelli

Second on Nature’s list is Tania Simoncelli, who current works at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on forensic science. Simoncelli’s selection is largely due to her work in helping the (ACLU) put together a legal case against a company which had taken out patents on human genes – an increasingly common practise which Simoncelli saw as a threat to individual’s rights to access their medical information, and to scientists’ ability to pursue research. After years of work during which Simoncelli campaigned to get members of the scientific community behind the issue, ACLU brought the case to the US Supreme Court, and won last June.

Deborah Persaud

Virologist Deborah Persaud, based at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, attracted global media attention last March after revealing that a baby born with HIV appeared to have been cured of the virus after treatment had been stopped. Along with research collaborators Hannah Gay and Katherine Luzuriaga, Persaud was named one of the world’s most influential 100 people by Time magazine just a month after breaking the news. While there is a long history of similar ‘HIV cure’ results being discredited, the paper published by Persaud, Gay and Luzuriaga is so far holding up, and has paved the way for fuller clinical trials. The next step for Persaud is to find a way of testing patients to see whether they are in remission, before they attempt stopping treatment.

Michel Mayor

University of Geneva emeritus astronomer Michel Mayor has spent the past two decades leading a team dedicated to finding exoplanets (planets outside the solar system). His big discovery of 2013? A planet (named Kepler-78b) of a size and density that are the closest to matching Earth as any yet identified. It’s still far from being a true match, but the 71-year-old says he hopes to celebrate the discovery of a real ‘Earth twin’ before he fully retires. With his team’s instruments improving at a rapid rate, he predicts this will happen within five years.

Naderev Saño

Diplomat Naderev Saño attracted international attention in November 2013, when he broke down during an emotional speech at the UN climate talks in Warsaw. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which had devastated his own country, the Philippines, he pleaded for fast and effective action on climate change, pledging to maintain a fast until a meaningful agreement was reached. He fasted for a full two weeks, until delegates finally reached a deal that would keep negotiations on track for the next climate change summit, in 2015. With a background in climate change and disaster management, Saño says there is general agreement within the scientific community that higher ocean temperatures are linked to more extreme storms, and he hopes the scale of recent disasters will help speed up action on climate change.

Viktor Grokhovsky

A metallurgist at Russia’s Ural Federal University, Viktor Grokhovsky has spent more than three decades studying meteorites – so when one hit the planet last February, he quickly got to work calculating where the fragments would have landed. His calculations led to more than 700 pieces being retrieved around the city of Chelyabinsk – and, the biggest find of all, a 570-kilogram chunk which had landed in a lake. The pieces are now being analyzed in labs around the world, marking a significant step forward in research on meteors, and predictions about the chances of them hitting Earth.

Hualan Chen

As the head of China’s National Avian Influenza Reference Laboratory, Hualan Chen was at the fore of efforts to contain outbreaks of an emerging avian influenza virus (H7N9) reported to be jumping from birds to humans in April. Chen’s team, working with researchers at the Shanghai Animal Disease Control Center, collected samples from poultry farms and markets across Shanghai, where outbreaks had occurred, making it possible for infected markets to be closed rapidly – leading to an instant drop in infections. Since May, only a few new cases have been reported. Meanwhile Chen and her team are continuing to research the virus – remaining ready to move fast again if another outbreak occurs.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov

A reproductive biologist at Oregon Health & Science University, Shoukhrat Mitalipov came into the spotlight in May, when he reported advances in the creation of patient-specific stem cells, made from embryos cloned from patients’ skin cells. Work in this field tends to be slow, and relatively rare, due to heavy regulation and a lack of federal funding; the use of cloned embryos remains controversial. Having published a paper documenting his lab’s success in cloning four cell lines, Mitalipov is now seeking federal approval for clinical trials of a similar technique, with the aim of helping prevent children being born with , and is also working on comparing stem cells from cloned embryos with those created by reprogramming adult cells.

Kathryn Clancy

Anthropologist Kathryn Clancy, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, makes the list of top scientists for her role in drawing attention to incidences of sexual assault during fieldwork. In collaboration with colleagues across the US, she conducted a large web-based survey of biological anthropologists, and in April the results were announced: almost 60% of respondents reported experiencing inappropriate sexual comments, while 18% reported physical assault or harassment. A similar trend was found when the survey was extended to a wider range of fieldwork disciplines. The American Anthropological Association and other professional societies have responded with statements and policies, and the work of Clancy and her colleagues has been widely lauded for opening up discussion of a long-ignored problem within the scientific community.

Henry Snaith

Finally, physicist Henry Snaith, based at the University of Oxford, achieved a breakthrough in 2013 in increasing the efficiency of solar cells made with perovskite semiconductors, creating a design which seems not far from commercialization. Snaith says he wanted to focus on research in solar cells because the field still offers lots of scope for development and new discoveries, with fast practical applications. His next project? Alongside being co-founder of Oxford Photovoltaics, a company focused on the development of transparent perovskite cells which can be incorporated into windows, he’d also like to look at the development of more effective ways to store solar power – so as to be ready for when the sector really takes off.

As well as highlighting 2013’s top scientists, Nature also suggests five ‘ones to watch’ for 2014: Masayo Takahashi (working on using stem cells to create sheets of retinal cells that could help prevent blindness); Chris Field (co-chair of the forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Jean-Pierre Bourguignon (due to take over the presidency of the European Research Council); Koppillil Radhakrishnan (chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, which will launch the country’s first attempt at visiting Mars later this year); Gordon Sanghera (chief executive of Oxford Nanopore, which is due to reveal the first results of its MinION genetic sequencer).

Who are your top scientists of 2013? What do you think will be the greatest breakthroughs in the international scientific community in 2014? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Content?'

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