Three American scientists honored for outstanding achievement in their fields of research.

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences announced the winners of its 2006 Heineken Prizes last week for outstanding contributions in four different fields of science: biochemistry and biophysics, medicine, environmental sciences and cognitive science. The awards, which consist of a trophy and $150,000, will be presented to the winners on September 28th, at a ceremony in Amsterdam.

“As a scientist who believes that science is international and can build bridges for peace, I’m especially moved to have been recognized by my European colleagues,” said Mary-Claire King, winner of the award for medical research. “To me, the prize reflects our shared values.”

Claire-King, a geneticist at the University of Washington, won the award for her discovery in the 1990s of the gene responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers. As a result of part of a project to reunite families in Argentina, she has also pioneered a technique for identifying individuals from genetic material taken from teeth and currently researches the genetics of deafness and HIV.

Another American scientist, Stuart Pimm of Duke University, won the Heineken Prize for environmental science. Pimm invented the concept of the “food chain,” used for understanding progressive extinctions in the 1980s and has studied ecosystems from Hawaii to Madagascar. His popular book, The World According to Pimm, discusses the human footprint on biodiversity.

The biochemistry and biophysics prize went to Sir Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist at the University of Leicester in the UK. Jeffreys was the engineer behind the now-ubiquitous DNA “fingerprint” technology that permits us to perform paternity tests, identify criminals from genetic material and discover the provenance of ancient human remains. Recently, he has turned his focus to the genetic results of radiation, looking specifically at mutations among families exposed to fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Carnegie Mellon University psychologist John Anderson is the first to win a Heineken Prize for cognitive science thanks to his “computational” theory of human cognition, known as Adaptive Control of Thought (or ACT). His theory can be used to predict cognitive activity and has been instrumental in the development of computer-assisted learning tools.

“It is a sign of the growing importance of cognitive science that the Heineken Prizes in science have been expanded to include an award for our field,” Anderson said in a statement to the press. “I am very honored to be the first winner and gratified that the award is for the ACT-R theory. It reflects the work of a community of scholars dedicated to trying to put together an understanding of the human mind.”

The Heineken Prizes were first given out in 1964 when Alfred Heineken established the biochemistry and biophysics prize in honor of his father, Dr. H.P. Heineken, a chemist and second president of the Heineken Breweries. In addition to achievements in the sciences, the Heineken Prizes also honor work in history and the arts.

Originally published April 17, 2006

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