NWO Spinoza Prizes 2013 for Mikhail Katsnelson, Piek Vossen and Bert Weckhuysen

NWO crowns best scientists in the Netherlands

10 June 2013

Physicist Mikhail Katsnelson, chemist Bert Weckhuysen and linguist Piek Vossen have received the highest award in Dutch science: the NWO Spinoza Prize. This was announced today by Jos Engelen, chairman of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). This autumn each of the laureates will receive 2.5 million euros to devote to scientific research.

NWO-Spinoza Laureates Bert Weckhuysen, Piek Vossen and Mikhail Katsnelson with NWO-chairman Jos Engelen during the announcement of the NWO-Spinoza Prizes 2013 on Monday, June 10. Credits: NWO/Arie WapenaarNWO-Spinoza Laureates Bert Weckhuysen, Piek Vossen and Mikhail Katsnelson with NWO-chairman Jos Engelen during the announcement of the NWO-Spinoza Prizes 2013 on Monday, 10 June. Credits: NWO/Arie Wapenaar

NWO awards the Spinoza Prizes each year to researchers employed in the Netherlands who according to international standards belong to the absolute top of science. The NWO Spinoza laureates perform outstanding and groundbreaking research that attracts widespread interest and are a source of inspiration to young researchers.

Mikhail Katsnelson (Radboud University Nijmegen)

Prof. dr. M.I. (Mikhail) Katsnelson (1957) is professor of Theoretical Physics at Radboud University Nijmegen. Katsnelson is one of the founding fathers of research into graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice. This two-dimensional structure gives the material unique characteristics. It is the thinnest and toughest material ever produced and conducts electricity thirty times faster than silicon. Graphene can potentially be used in solar cells, high frequency transistors and as a replacement for silicon computerchips.

Katsnelson is the world's best-cited and most influential theoretician in the area of graphene. His various publications about this subject have already been cited more than 12,000 times. André Geim, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for the discovery of graphene, says that without Katsnelson their ‘rapid progress would be impossible ’. Katsnelson's research lies at the basis of almost all discoveries and predictions about graphene. For example, he predicted Klein tunnelling in graphene and the rippling of graphene at finite temperatures and that the electrical properties of graphene would change if it were stretched.

Katsnelson's broad research profile makes him unique: within solid-state physics he plays a leading role in research into lattice dynamics, magnetism, electron structure and spectroscopy. He brings together researchers and research from different disciplines and by doing this strengthens the discipline of theoretical physics. In Nijmegen, he leads a superb research group. As a theoretician, Katsnelson frequently works together with experimental physicists to test his predictions and theories.

Mikhail Katsnelson was born in Magnitogorsk (Russia) and graduated summa cum laude in physics at the Ural State University in Yekaterinburg in 1977 when he was just twenty years old. In 1975, at the age of seventeen, he published his first scientific paper. Within three years of graduating he gained his doctorate from the Institute of Metal Physics in the current Yekaterinburg. In 1986, Katsnelson became the youngest Doctor of sciences amongst physicists in the Soviet Union. In 1992 he became professor at the Ural State University. Between 2002 and 2004, he worked as a visiting researcher at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Since 2004, he has been Professor of Theoretical Physics at Radboud University Nijmegen. In 2011, he was appointed Knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion. In 2012, he was appointed as honorary doctor at the University of Uppsala. In 2010, Radboud University Nijmegen awarded him the Radboud Science Award. Together with a team of young scientists he used this to process his research into teaching materials for primary school pupils.

Piek Vossen (VU University Amsterdam)

Prof. dr. P.Th.J.M. (Piek) Vossen (1960) is Professor of Computational Lexicology at the VU University Amsterdam. He combines linguistics and computer sciences to analyse linguistic phenomena using computer models. Piek Vossen leads and has led various large international projects. On behalf of the European Union he produced so-called wordnets in eight languages. Wordnets are webs of all words from a language linked to each other on the basis of meaning. By linking the wordnets to each other Vossen made it possible to systematically investigate similarities and differences as well as meaning and culture in languages. Furthermore, wordnets make it possible for machines to understand language better. After this project had been completed, Vossen extended the project and together with others he set up the Global WordNet Association in 2000. WordNets of about 100 languages are currently linked to each other. Vossen fundamentally changed the Wordnets by linking these to ontologies: logical definitions and concepts that enable computers to reason.

The research of Piek Vossen lays the foundation for many large and small projects in which language and technology are combined. The research combines questions about language (‘What is a word and what is a concept? Are all conceivable compounds words and concepts?’) with the technical processing of these types of questions. His team constructed a spoken conversation system that can be used by local councils to deal with questions over the phone. His latest project is the ‘history recorder’, a computer program that 'reads' the news each day and precisely records what happened when and where in the world and who was involved. The program aligns these events with events from the past to form a single storyline. Vossen has led several multi-million euro projects in which researchers from different disciplines have been brought together.

Piek Vossen studied Dutch Language and Literature and General Linguistics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1995, he gained his doctorate cum laude from the same university. As a senior researcher at the University of Amsterdam he was responsible for national and international projects, including EuroWordNet. Vossen has combined his academic work with positions in the private sector. From 1999 to 2001 he was senior manager at Sail Labs, a language technology research laboratory and between 2001 and 2009 he was Chief Technology Officer at Irion Technologies. Since 2006, he has been a professor at the VU University Amsterdam. He is head of the Computational Lexicology & Terminology Lab (CLTL) and founder and chair of the Global WordNet Association (GWC).

Bert Weckhuysen (Utrecht University)

Prof. dr. ir. B.M. (Bert) Weckhuysen (1968) is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis at Utrecht University. His research focuses on the understanding and development of new or improved catalysts for the conversion of fossil and sustainable raw materials into transportation fuels, chemicals, plastics and building blocks for medicines. He is widely recognized by the international scientific community for his pioneering contributions to the in-situ characterization of catalysts. With his innovative combination of different spectroscopic methods ranging from Raman to X-ray spectroscopy he has opened new directions in heterogeneous catalysis research bridging different length and time scales. His innovative in-situ techniques are used to image how catalyst materials precisely function during chemical processes and how they progressively deactivate under realistic reaction conditions. Such detailed knowledge provides clear guidelines for the development of new or improved catalyst materials.

Weckhuysen's research group realised several breakthroughs in the 3D imaging of catalysts ‘in action’ and in combining atomic force microscopy with spectroscopy. In addition, he is at the forefront of the development of catalysts for sustainable processes. He has developed, for example, novel approaches for the catalytic conversion of the woody fraction of biomass into fuels and chemicals. Moreover, his research is vitally important for the chemical industry and he therefore often collaborates with industrial partners. Weckhuysen leads a large, international group of talented researchers.

Bert Weckhuysen completed his Masters degree in Chemical and Agricultural Engineering at the KU Leuven in 1991. Four years later he gained his doctorate there cum laude for research In the area of heterogeneous catalysis. He subsequently continued his research in the United States as a postdoc. In 1997, Weckhuysen returned to Leuven. Since 2000, he has been Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Catalysis at Utrecht University. He has received various grants from NWO for his scientific work, including a Vici grant in 2002 and Top grants in 2006 and 2011. Weckhuysen has received several national and international awards, including the gold medal from the Royal Netherlands Chemical Society in 2006 and the Emmett Award in Fundamental Catalysis from the North American Catalysis Society in 2011. In 2012, he won the prestigious International Catalysis Award and received a European ERC Advanced Grant. In that year he also became the first Distinguished Professor of the Faculty of Science at Utrecht University. Weckhuysen is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). In addition, he is the scientific director of the Netherlands Institute for Catalysis Research (NIOK) and the research programme CATCHBIO, of which he has been one of the initiators. As ‘captain of science’ of the top team chemistry, Weckhuysen is also involved in shaping the top sector policy of the Dutch government.

About the NWO Spinoza Prize

The NWO Spinoza Prize has been awarded since 1995. The awards are made on the basis of nominations. An international committee evaluates the nominated candidates.

On 27 September 2013 the NWO Spinoza Prizes will be presented during a special ceremony at the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague when the researchers will also present their research and their plans for using the prize.

About NWO

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is the national research council in the Netherlands and has a budget of more than 500 million euros per year. NWO promotes quality and innovation in science by selecting and funding the best research. It manages research institutes of national and international importance, contributes to strategic programming of scientific research and brings science and society closer together. Research proposals are reviewed and selected by researchers of international repute. More than 5000 scientists can carry out research thanks to funding from NWO.

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