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Scientists and Stars

The Breakthrough Foundation has awarded more than $25 million in prizes to biologists, physicists, and mathematicians, among others, the New York Times reports.

In the life sciences, the winners include Harvard Medical School's Stephen Elledge for his work on cellular perception and response to DNA damage, Yoshinori Ohsumi from the Tokyo Institute of Technology for his work on autophagy — for which he also won a Nobel Prize this year — and Baylor College of Medicine's Huda Zoghbi for her work linking mutations in the SCA1 gene to spinocerebellar ataxia.

"I wasn't expecting it," Elledge tells the Guardian. "What can you say when someone tells you they are going to give you $3 million? I'm not used to that, I can tell you." He says that he's still working out what to do with the prize money, but adds that he hopes to establish scholarships for disadvantaged children from his hometown in Illinois.

The University of California, Santa Cruz's Harry Noller and Stanford University's Roeland Nusse also won in the life sciences category.

The Breakthrough Prizes were established by billionaire Yuri Milner, along with other big Silicon Valley names, and the prizes are typically given out in star-studded events, the Times notes, as Milner has argued that scientists should be treated like rock stars. Discover's D-brief blog notes that the festivities were hosted by actor Morgan Freeman and that there was a performance by singer Alicia Keys.

"The principal message is that intellectual achievement and fundamental science is important for our civilization and ought to be celebrated," Milner tells D-brief. "We're trying to reach out to a lot of people. Our goal is to generate more public support for fundamental science and to get more young people excited."

The foundation also awarded $400,000 each to two high school students for making videos that creatively explained scientific concepts, D-brief adds.

Other winners include the physicists working on the LIGO gravitational wave detector; string theorists Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa from Harvard University and Joseph Polchinski from the University of California, Santa Barbara; and mathematician Jean Bourgain from the Institute for Advanced Study.