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Alan T. Waterman Award

Call for Nominations

The National Science Foundation is no longer accepting nominations for the 2021 Alan T. Waterman Award. The 2022 call for nominations will be announced late summer of 2021.

2020 Alan T. Waterman Awardees

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has named two awardees for its prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award: Emily Balskus, Harvard University Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and John O. Dabiri, California Institute of Technology Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering.

The Waterman Award Committee, an external panel of distinguished scientists and engineers, chaired by Barbara Landau, Johns Hopkins University, recommended Drs. Balskus and Dabiri from a large group of highly qualified early career nominees representing all disciplines.

“This year’s scientific pioneers are innovators who are creatively addressing some of the most challenging scientific questions,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Emily Balskus has opened up novel ways to explore and exploit the chemistry and biology of microbes that live in our bodies and how they are linked to our health. And we’re already seeing the potential impact. John Dabiri has looked to the fluid mechanics of sea life for inspiration to build better wind farms that appear to boost efficiency with a much smaller footprint.” 

A video featuring the 2020 Alan T. Waterman Awardees can be found here.

Photo of Emily Balskus.

Emily Balskus
Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University

Dr. Balskus is recognized for her transformative work that integrates chemistry and microbiology to understand biosynthetic mechanisms and microbial metabolism at the molecular level, with emphasis on enzymatic processes in the human gut microbiome. This pioneering work at the interfaces of chemistry, enzymology, and microbiology illuminates the complex molecular basis of microbial interactions, how these interactions shape their environment, and how they influence host organism health.

Her work provides innovative solutions to challenges facing medicine, agriculture, and the environment. Her breakthroughs in elucidating the biochemical mechanisms underlying the human microbiome have already transformed how others approach this important line of research.

Dr. Balskus’ discoveries include the microbial enzyme responsible for catalyzing the degradation of choline, a problem which had eluded researchers for decades. This new knowledge enables a better understanding of anaerobic choline metabolism, both in the environment, where it impacts the global carbon cycle and greenhouse gas production, and within the human body, where it contributes to interspecies metabolism.

Dr. Balskus’ awards and honors include an NSF CAREER award (2015), Laureate in Chemistry of the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists (2019) and being named one of the top 35 Innovators Under 35 by the MIT Technology Review (2014).

Photo of John O. Dabiri.

John O. Dabiri
Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, California Institute of Technology

Dr. Dabiri is recognized for his pioneering research in fluid mechanics, with innovative applications in biology, energy, and the environment. His transformative work, especially as applied to biological flow problems, has led to understanding the principles of marine animal locomotion and their application to other biological and environmental problems.

In the area of wind energy, Dabiri demonstrated that the traditional approach of separating wind turbines to avoid interactions is less optimal than placing them close together. Adoption of his results by electrical utilities has dramatically increased the power output of wind farms. These findings were inspired by his previous studies of the hydrodynamics of fish when swimming together in schools.

By linking the swimming of marine animals to fluid dynamics of the human heart, Dabiri discovered that efficient swimming in animals like jellyfish and squid leads to vortex formation similar to vortices created in a healthy human heart. Conversely, escape swimming in animals leads to vortex patterns that are similar to those of the human heart suffering from cardiac disease. Identifying these patterns provides a path to rethinking how to diagnose and treat heart disease and potentially at earlier stages.

Dr. Dabiri developed the first technology that enables scuba divers to conduct in situ measurement of the water velocity field using digital particle velocimetry, a technique previously confined to lab applications. He used this new capability to measure fluid mechanics in the ocean to study inaccessible processes such as the physical and chemical consequences of forcing of the surrounding water by swimming animals, proving that physical mechanisms exist that could lead small animals to move water on much larger scales, overturning a previously widely held belief to the contrary.

Dr. Dabiri’s awards and honors include a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2009), a MacArthur Fellow (2010), and like Balskus, Dabiri was named one of the top 35 Innovators Under 35 by the MIT Technology Review (2013).

NSF press release and photo credit


Congress established the Alan T. Waterman Award in August 1975 to mark the 25th Anniversary of the National Science Foundation and to honor its first Director. The annual award recognizes an outstanding young researcher in any field of science or engineering supported by the National Science Foundation. In addition to a medal, the awardee receives a grant of $1,000,000 over a five year period for scientific research or advanced study in the mathematical, physical, biological, engineering, social, or other sciences at the institution of the recipient's choice.

For more information, please see the Waterman Award fact sheet, prepared by the NSF Office of Legislative and Public Affairs.

Eligibility and Selection Criteria

  • A candidate must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. He or she must be 40 years of age or younger,or not more than 10 years beyond receipt of the Ph.D. degree, by December 31st of the year in which they are nominated.

  • A candidate should have demonstrated exceptional individual achievement in scientific or engineering research of sufficient quality, originality, innovation, and significant impact on the field so as to situate him or her as a leader among peers.

Nomination Requirements

  • Nomination packages consist of a nomination and four letters of reference submitted via FastLane. NOTE: Reference letters should not exceed two pages.

  • The names of four references are required for each nomination. The references cannot come from the nominee’s home institution. References must be requested by the nominator and submitted by the established FastLane deadline.

  • Nominations will not be reviewed by the Committee unless all the requirements are met.

  • Institutions may nominate an unlimited number of individuals.


Please see the Frequently Asked Questions page for specific questions about the award criteria or the nomination process.

For additional information, e-mail or contact the NSF Office of Integrative Activities at 703-292-8040.