Vilcek honors immigrant scientists: Ruth Lehmann, Mohamed Abou Donia, Ibrahim Cissé, Silvi Rouskin



IMAGE: A photo collage of all nine of the 2021 Vilcek Foundation Prizewinners – Including Science Prizewinners Ruth Lehmann, Mohamed Abou Donia, Ibrahim Cissé, and Silvi Rouskin. Other prizewinners pictured are…
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Credit: Courtesy of the Vilcek Foundation

NEW YORK, April 6, 2021— The Vilcek Foundation has launched an online celebration to honor the recipients of the 2021 Vilcek Foundation Prizes. Formatted as a microsite, the online celebration recognizes and shares the accomplishments of the 2021 Vilcek Foundation Prizewinners in lieu of the Vilcek Foundation’s annual gala.

Awarded annually, the Vilcek Foundation Prizes celebrate the value and importance of immigration by recognizing the outstanding achievements of foreign-born individuals in the United States. In 2021, the Vilcek Foundation Prizes are awarded in Biomedical Science, in Filmmaking, and for Excellence in Public Service.

The microsite includes an introductory statement from Vilcek Foundation President Rick Kinsel, and written statements from Jan and Marica Vilcek, cofounders of the Vilcek Foundation. The site provides an in-depth profile of each prize recipient, accompanied by insights from leading scientists and experts who participated in the juried review of all of the candidates for the 2021 Vilcek Foundation Prizes.

“Through our foundation’s prizes, we create a platform that celebrates foreign-born biomedical scientists and the important discoveries they have made. Their contributions benefit the sciences, medicine, and society in profound ways,” says Jan Vilcek, chairman and CEO of the Vilcek Foundation. “Immigration enables scientists from around the world to bring their experience, perspective, and expertise to the United States’ foremost research institutions.”

“The work of this year’s prizewinners helps us to better understand our world, and empowers us to imagine a better future,” says Kinsel. “In honoring immigrants whose work has a positive impact on our society, we amplify the importance of diversity and cultural exchange.”

Ruth Lehmann (b. Germany) is the recipient of the 2021 Vilcek Prize in Biomedical Science. Lehmann is the director of the Whitehead Institute. She receives the prize for her foundational contributions to the understanding of primordial germ cells and the germ cell life cycle, and for her institutional leadership in the field. As a juror, the late Angelika Amon wrote on Lehmann’s candidacy for the award: “The community Ruth has built, the young people Ruth has fostered–it’s just another dimension to her scientific personality that needs to be taken into account. On both a scientific and enterprise level, there are few people that can match Ruth Lehmann.”

Mohamed Abou Donia (b. Egypt), Ibrahim Cissé (b. Niger), and Silvi Rouskin (b. Bulgaria) each receive a Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science.

Mohamed Abou Donia is an associate professor at Princeton University. Trained as a pharmacist, he received his PhD in medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy, and completed postdoctoral work in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Fischbach at the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. He receives the award for his research leadership on the impact of the microbiomes of humans and other organisms on host health, disease outcomes, and the environment.

Ibrahim Cissé is a professor of physics at Caltech. He receives the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science for his pioneering work using Photo-Activated Localization Microscopy (PALM microscopy) to observe the physical properties and behaviors of RNA polymerase enzymes as they decode DNA into RNA. Leslie B. Vosshall of the Rockefeller University remarks that, “Ibrahim’s work using cutting-edge microscopy to look at liquid phase separation is incredible. Applying the tools of physics to look at single molecules is inspiring. His work is beautiful and rigorous.”

Silvi Rouskin is the Andria and Paul Heafy Whitehead Fellow at the Whitehead Institute. She receives the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise for her groundbreaking work exploring the structures of viral RNA, aiding the potential development of RNA-based therapeutics for HIV and COVID-19. “Silvi has shown breathtaking ambition through all stages of her career,” writes Harmit Malik of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “from tackling the challenging task of elucidating RNA structure in living cells, and connecting this structural insight into functional consequences on gene expression and disease.”


The site highlighting and honoring the recipients of the 2021 Vilcek Foundation Prizes may be found here:

The Vilcek Foundation

The Vilcek Foundation raises awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States and fosters appreciation of the arts and sciences. The foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation–to honor immigrant contributions to the United States, and more broadly to foster appreciation of the arts and sciences–was inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history. Since 2000, the foundation has awarded over $5.8 million in prizes to foreign-born individuals and supported organizations with over $5.3 million in grants.

The Vilcek Foundation is a private operating foundation, a federally tax-exempt nonprofit organization under IRS Section 501(c)(3).

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