Campus & Community

Radcliffe’s Fay Prize awarded to Norman Yao for pioneering research

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The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University has named Harvard math and physics concentrator Norman Yao ’09 the winner of its 2009 Captain Jonathan Fay Prize. Yao was selected for the quality and potential impact of his senior thesis, which describes a breakthrough scientific technique he developed to measure the properties of neurofilaments, a family of proteins found in the neurons that constitute mammalian nervous tissue. Already, Yao’s technique has enabled a discovery about how cross-linking occurs in neurofilament protein molecules — an important advance in understanding the mechanical properties of cellular networks.

Barbara J. Grosz, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, presented the Fay Prize at Radcliffe’s annual Strawberry Tea, held May 27. Harvard seniors John Sheffield and Matthew Spellberg received honorable mentions for their outstanding theses in social studies and literature, respectively.

“The Radcliffe Institute is delighted to honor Norman Yao for his advanced research and breakthrough technique that paves the way for new scientific discoveries,” said Grosz. “With great admiration for the work he has accomplished, we look forward to watching Norman’s future scientific contributions.”

The Radcliffe Institute annually awards the Fay Prize to a graduating Harvard College senior who has produced the most outstanding imaginative work or original research in any field. Submissions can take the form of a thesis, course work, or a creative arts project. Candidates for the Fay Prize are chosen from the winners of Harvard College’s Thomas T. Hoopes Prize, awarded each year for outstanding work or research.

In his thesis, “Nonlinear Mechanics of Biopolymer Networks,” Yao explains his study of the elasticity of neurofilaments, which serve as the neuron’s defense mechanism against external stresses, and are part of the reason for its rigidity. Although many cells in the human body are composed of nearly 90 percent water or other fluid, they remain elastic solids; for years, scientists have been trying to understand this phenomenon. In 2007, Yao and a group of collaborators began studying the neurons of cows to help answer this question. Yao’s principal advisers were David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics at Harvard and “Weitzlab” founder, and Frederick MacKintosh, professor of physics and astronomy at Vrije Universiteit (Netherlands). Using neurofilaments from bovine spinal cords, they constructed a gelatinous network that behaved like an intracellular network. The team embarked on a mission to uncover the origins of elasticity in these networks, whose curious feature is nonlinearity (the tendency to stiffen when stretched) — a very rare trait in synthetic materials.

To reveal the mysterious workings of these neuron proteins, Yao devised an innovative approach to taking measurements. His “inertio-elastic oscillations” method for measuring neurofilaments’ nonlinear elasticity at different levels of stress proved to be more accurate and effective than traditional methods, which are best suited to measurements of linear elasticity in materials that do not stiffen when stretched. The high-quality data that Yao’s method produced made it possible for MacKintosh to discover the origin of the cross-linking that causes stiffening under strain: ions with a positive charge and the ability to bond to two other chemical entities.

“This is a new approach likely to be helpful to many in the fields of biology, biophysics, and bioengineering,” said Rosalind A. Segal, director of the science program at the Radcliffe Institute, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, and a member of the Department of Pediatric Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Yao’s thesis is based on four manuscripts, of which he is the lead author on three and a lead co-author on one. In 2008, one manuscript, “Probing Nonlinear Rheology with Inertio-Elastic Oscillations,” was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Rheology as well as the Virtual Journal of Biological Physics Research, and another appeared in Conference Proceedings of the XVth International Congress in Rheology. The remaining two have also been submitted for publication.

“I am extremely delighted to have been awarded the Fay Prize and, at the same time, humbled to be in the company of so many remarkable former winners,” said Yao. “My work in the Weitzlab has been the cornerstone of my undergraduate experience and has taught me about the importance of interdisciplinary research. I’ve just had so much fun working on these projects.”

At the outset of his thesis, “Nonlinear Mechanics of Biopolymer Networks,” Yao quotes Edwin Powell Hubble: “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.” Yao has gained admission to several graduate programs and has chosen to continue his scientific adventure at Harvard. He will work toward a doctorate in theoretical condensed matter physics, supported by prestigious fellowships, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Computational Science Graduate Fellowship and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Currently the president of the Harvard Table Tennis Club and highly ranked by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association, Yao will set aside some time for his hobby as well.


Social studies concentrator John Sheffield earned an honorable mention for his thesis, “The Anatomy of the Iron Fist: Police Violence in Democratic Latin America,” an examination of why police violence has increased in certain Latin American democracies, but decreased in others. Based primarily on his fieldwork in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Medellín, Colombia, as well as sophisticated statistical analysis, Sheffield argues that growing spatial inequality and “degenerating organization coherence of police forces” are the main causes of increased violence.

“This thesis is a truly impressive piece of research. It uses both quantitative analysis and qualitative methods to help elucidate the causes of police violence — a significant social problem in many countries. The research has implications not only for policing in Latin America, the focus of the research, but for policing more generally,” said Brigitte Madrian, director of the Radcliffe Institute’s social sciences program and Aetna Professor of Public Policy and Corporate Management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Matthew Spellberg, a joint concentrator in English and American literature and language and Romance languages and literatures, earned his honorable mention for a thesis titled “Art and Dream in Marcel Proust,” which proposes “Proust’s vision of the dreaming mind” as a central model for art and imagination in “Remembrance of Things Past.”

Describing Spellberg’s thesis as “a stunning reinterpretation of Proust’s massive opus,” Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, senior adviser to the Radcliffe Institute’s humanities program and professor of the history of art and architecture in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “In the course of his deeply original, at once daring and generous reading of one of the key works of modern literature, Spellberg ended up offering a fundamental insight into the nature of human creativity.”

Sheffield, a resident of Fayetteville, N.C., has accepted a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in statistics next year. Spellberg will soon leave his hometown of Mill Valley, Calif., to study on a fellowship at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.