How will the development of new materials make possible the next generation of clean energy? What’s at stake in making artificial intelligence more efficient and cost-effective? Where can we locate the earliest evidence of life in the geological record?
The winners of this year’s Star-Friedman Challenge for Promising Scientific Research are pursuing the answers to these and other questions. Now in its ninth year, the challenge annually awards nearly $1 million in seed funding to Harvard researchers to support exploratory, high-impact projects in the life, physical, and social sciences. Chaired by Catherine Dulac, Higgins Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Lee and Ezpeleta Professor of Arts and Sciences, the faculty review committee convened in March and selected six visionary projects from this year’s impressive wave of research proposals.
The Star-Friedman Challenge was established to support work by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2013 through a generous gift from James A. Star ’83. A subsequent gift from Josh Friedman ’76, M.B.A. ’80, J.D. ’82, and Beth Friedman expanded the scope of the call for proposals to researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Now fully endowed, the challenge aims to empower Harvard’s faculty to pursue ambitious research endeavors for generations to come.
After being hosted virtually in 2020 and 2021, the Star-Friedman Challenge award ceremony will once again take place on campus. The winners will present on their research and field questions from the audience in an event Tuesday in University Hall’s Faculty Room. Keep reading for a brief look at each of these projects — and why they are so important.
New insights into the earliest signs of life on Earth
When did life first evolve on Earth? With the support of the award, Nadja Drabon, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, will look to some of the oldest surviving minerals in the planet’s geological record. Zircons that formed in the Hadean era, more than 4 billion years ago, have been found in only a handful of locations around the world. Drabon intends to collect an unprecedented sampling of these rare minerals from two newly discovered sites in India and South Africa. Analyzing inclusions of carbon isotopes found in the zircons could more firmly date life’s origins on the newly formed Earth and in the process shed more light on the early ocean.