Science & Technology

Liberty Science Center Hosts 12th Annual Genius Gala

The science world came together with the world of philanthropy in Jersey City last night at Liberty Science Center’s sold out 12th Annual Genius Gala, where Dr. Andrea “Annie” Kritcher, Dr. Nicholas Schiff, and Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr. received the Genius Award, the Center’s highest honor, for their groundbreaking scientific contributions and discoveries. The legendary William Shatner was also recognized with the Icon Award.

Gov. Phil Murphy, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, Martine Rothblatt, a 2019 Genius Awardee, and Liberty Science Board of Trustees member and former CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group Ralph Izzo with his wife Karen conferred the “Genius” distinction upon the recipients in front of the crowd of more than 600 business, civic, and philanthropic leaders from across New Jersey, the region, country and the world.

Liberty Science Center raised over $3 million at the event. The Genius Gala is a yearly commemoration of innovation, creativity, science, and technology. It also serves as the Center’s chief fundraising event – since its inception, the Genius Gala has raised approximately $28 million to benefit LSC’s STEM education programs, helping to make world-class science learning accessible to students, teachers, and families, especially those in high-needs communities.

“This year’s class of Genius awardees are a true testament to what this honor seeks to convey and we are excited to recognize them here tonight,” said Liberty Science Center President and CEO Paul Hoffman. “Their breakthroughs and courage to go against the grain of what was expected of them sets them in a class of their own and lays the foundation for future generations of geniuses to build on what they have started.”

“For more than thirty years, the Liberty Science Center has stood as a proud symbol of New Jersey’s pioneering legacy in science and innovation,” remarked New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy. “And with tonight’s Gala, we are not only coming together to embrace that classic Jersey spirit of ingenuity and invention… we are also coming together to honor a group of trailblazers who are pushing the boundaries of science and technology to change our world for the better.”

“I want to thank the Liberty Science Center for all the incredible work they do for kids, the future generation of scientists,” said Dr. Annie Kritcher, the engineering design lead on the experiment that achieved the holy grail of nuclear physics. “It is an honor and a privilege to be recognized tonight as a Genius at the Liberty Science Center alongside other incredible scientists and innovators.”

“I’d like to thank Liberty Science Center for this award, I’m honored to receive it. I’d also like to point out that all of the work that goes on in these topics we listened to this evening is done by ensemble acts, scientists who are highly motivated and super energetic,” said Dr. Schiff, the neurologist using implanted electrodes to reverse effects of traumatic brain injuries.

“It takes a village to build a scientist and I have to give thanks to my village who helped build me,” said Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr., the first African American to receive a PhD in evolutionary biology. “We need to remember the importance of helping the next generation of brilliant young scientists. Through providing equal opportunities and access to resources for all kids, we can guarantee the success of the next generation of scientists.”

More about the 2024 Genius Awardees:

  • Andrea Kritcher, a nuclear physicist and engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. She was the engineering design lead on the experiment that achieved the holy grail of nuclear physics in December 2022 and was repeated at least four times since then: the world’s first controlled nuclear fusion reaction that released more energy than it consumed. Nuclear fusion is the mechanism that powers the sun and other stars. Unlike nuclear fission–the energy-generating reaction in today’s nuclear power plants–there are no radioactive byproducts in nuclear fusion. It is a clean source of energy that could potentially be harnessed to help wean us off fossil fuels.
  • Nicholas Schiff, MD, a leading expert on neurological disorders of consciousness. The author of more than 100 scientific publications and 12 US and international patents, Dr. Schiff is the Jerold B. Katz Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medicine and Attending Neurologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Traumatic brain injuries like car accidents have left more than five million Americans permanently disabled. In a pioneering experiment led by Dr. Schiff and reported in the medical literature in December 2023, five people who had debilitating brain injuries were able to achieve improved cognitive function after receiving electrode implants that stimulated an almond-size structure deep within their brains called the central lateral nucleus. Implanted electrodes, a kind of pacemaker for the brain, offer the promise of becoming the first effective therapy for chronic brain injuries. Schiff and his colleagues’s successful experiment builds on years of research into neuronal signaling in the brain and how it can be disrupted or shut down (coma) if the brain is severely jostled in, say, a car crash or a fall.
  • Joseph Graves Jr., is the MacKenzie Scott Endowed Professor of Biology at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Also known as “Black Darwin,” Professor Graves is the first African American to receive a PhD in evolutionary biology. He has done pioneering work in the genetics of aging and is a prolific author and speaker dispelling misconceptions about biology and race. He has written five books, including: The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, The Race Myth: Why We Pretend That Race Exists in America, and most recently A Voice in the Wilderness: A Pioneering Biologist Explains How Evolution Can Help Us Solve Our Biggest Problems. Born in Westfield, New Jersey, in 1955 at the start of the civil rights movement, Graves had to teach himself to read because both his parents were illiterate. His elementary school wrongly considered him to be mentally disabled and placed him in a low academic track. He proved the system wrong when he not only finished high school but went on to become the only graduate from his class to earn a PhD in science. A chess enthusiast, Graves says that his childhood interest in science was fueled by Star Trek.

For his advocacy of Earth and inspiring generations to appreciate and embrace the wonders of space through his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk aboard the USS Enterprise from the Star Trek TV series and movies, the Genius Gala recognized the legendary William Shatner. At the age of 90, Shatner officially became the world’s oldest living space traveler when he launched into orbit aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard.

“Science is the building blocks of knowledge, it is the avenue of acquiring knowledge and curiosity is the motor that makes human beings work. Everyone is capable of contributing to these building blocks. A child is able to work in science – we see kids in digs, they’re there scraping at dirt, and they’re learning,” said Shatner in his recorded acceptance speech for the 2024 Icon Award. “This is where the Liberty Science Center steps in, what they do is noble, creating a place for the future generations to learn and explore. However, these children are also the ones who will be most affected by global warming. It’s on the rest of us to understand that not only can we make a difference, but we must.”

The 750,000+ visitors to the Center this year will find the 2024 inductees in the Center’s permanent Genius Gallery display, along with previous recipients: John C. Mather, Katalin Karikó, Dr. Uma Valeti, Hugh Herr, Priyamvada Natarajan, Dr. Robert Montgomery, William Conan Davis, Jennifer A. Lewis, Moshe Safdie, Katherine Johnson, Ray Kurzweil, Marc Raibert and SpotMini, Frank Gehry, Jack Horner, Ellen Langer, Kip Thorne, Sir Richard Branson, Garry Kasparov, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, Dean Kamen, Sylvia Earle, Craig Venter, Cori Bargmann, Ernő Rubik, Jeff Bezos, Vint Cerf, Jill Tarter, Sara Seager, George Church, Vitalik Buterin, Laurie Santos, Chris Messina, Martine Rothblatt, and Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz.

Hoffman also unveiled during the evening that Board of Trustees Member Ralph Izzo and his wife Karen are making a major contribution to Liberty Science Center to create a new exhibition focused on climate change, and in particular, how it will impact the NYC-NJ area. The planned exhibition will feature oversized aquariums, an interactive touch tank, an outdoor augmented reality experience allowing guests to “see” the past and future of the Hudson and the local area under various global warming scenarios, and an immersive and visceral storm surge experience.

Genius Gala attendees enjoyed a musical performance by the award-winning PS22 Chorus of Staten Island. Formed in 2000, the choral group of 85 4th and 5th grade students has been an internet sensations for years, racking up hundreds of millions of views for their videos on social media. The group has been featured on Nightline, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The View, Sesame Street, and the 2011 Academy Awards. Not a school for the arts, the PS 22 Chorus PS22 features a multicultural group of ordinary children achieving extraordinary accomplishments, with the mission to model harmony, both musically and otherwise, and serve as a reminder that through hard work, anything is possible.

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