On April 5, leaders in scientific research and dramatic performance gathered at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City to honor the winners of the 2016 Vilcek Prizes. The awards, which have been given annually since 2006, recognize the contributions of immigrants in biomedical science and the arts, this year commending accomplishments in theatre.
The evening’s highest honors, the Vilcek Prizes, were awarded to Dan R. Littman, a professor at NYU who pioneered many advances in the study of immunology, and Blanka Zizka, the founding director of the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. The Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise were given to researchers Fernando Camargo, Roberta Capp, and Houra Merrikh, and theatre professionals Sarah Benson, Desdemona Chiang, and Yi Zhao.
In his opening remarks, Jan Vilcek, the co-founder of the Vilcek Foundation, noted that despite their varied backgrounds, the prizewinners shared some characteristics: “Creativity, suspension of disbelief, and imagining the unimaginable are the common ingredients of the work generated by the exceptional individuals, artists, and scientists alike … that are chosen by our juries to receive the Vilcek Prizes.”
Richard Axel, a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist, presented the science awards. In his moving introduction, he stressed the importance of the United States’ commitment to multiculturalism, denouncing the xenophobia of recent political discourse: “Too many Americans today perceive immigrants either as physically threatening or an economic burden. Perhaps even more troubling is the view that immigrants pose a threat to our culture. The history of this nation, and the history of so many great civilizations before us, reveals that incorporating diversity is essential for a nation’s survival.”
Yet, politics did not overshadow the remarkable stories of the honorees. Houra juxtaposed memories in her Creative Promise Prize acceptance speech, detailing her growth since moving to the U.S. from Iran at the age of 16: “My first memory in a scientific environment was when my chemistry teacher decided to announce to my classmates that she thought I would never be anything … Twenty-three years later, I am standing in front of Bill Gates … proposing an idea on how to solve a serious global health problem.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel set the stage for the theatre prizes with an eloquent speech that covered a wide range of artistic topics. Throughout the address, she emphasized the significance of inclusion in the theatre community: “What’s all so very remarkable, and what I am so grateful for, is that we have these four artists from across the globe coming here and invigorating the notion of American plays, of American writing.”
Taiwanese-American director Desdemona recalled that a sense of inclusion initially attracted her to the dramatic arts: “What drew me in to the field was a need for community and belonging, and in a way I think a lot of the immigrant experience is about the continual search for community and belonging—we are constantly reinventing and redefining what it means to be and feel at home.”
Many past Vilcek Prize and Creative Promise Prizewinners were present to welcome the honorees into their ranks, including Metropolitan Museum of Art fashion curator Andrew Bolton, writer Dinaw Mengestu, designer Quilian Riano, fashion designers Siki Im and Tuyen Tran, as well as biomedical researchers Joan Massagué, Titia de Lange, Richard Flavell, Ruslan Medzhitov, Thomas Jessell, Peter Walter, Yibin Kang, and Stavros Lomvardas.