Over 900 nominees from 111 countries competed to become the Science Breakthroughs of the Year. On 9 November 2020, the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, we celebrated the Top Science Breakthroughs of the Year in the following categories: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Social Sciences and Humanities, Science in the Arts, Digital Education, Science and Innovation Management, Emerging Talents, Science Start-Ups, and Science Engagement.

These breakthroughs mark significant progress in a wide range of fields. For human health, the use of modified proteins as Trojan horses to treat cancer and viral infections, and microrobots that move like jellyfish in the human body replacing risky surgery were awarded. Other winning projects train refugees for leadership positions or involve hundreds of thousands of volunteers to solve complex innovation challenges. One breakthrough achieves superconductivity at close-to room temperatures. Another set of breakthroughs address global challenges such as our perception of nature or the human capacity to act in solidarity on a global scale.


We are delighted to announce the 10 Science Breakthroughs of the Year:

Physical Sciences:

Breaking the Wall to Room-Temperature Superconductivity
Mikhail Eremets, the Belarusian-born physicist, has pioneered experiments that allow superconductivity at temperatures of a common household freezer by using unusual materials such as metallic hydrogen.

Science in the Arts:

Breaking the Wall to Machine Auguries
The London-based artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg created new bird voices to help us understand our negative impact on nature. In dialogue with scientists and experts, she uses emerging technologies such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) to create deep fakes that challenge our perception of nature.

Life Sciences:

Breaking the Wall to Next Generation Biopharmaceuticals
Christian Hackenberger has pioneered the development of protein-based therapeutics, based on the modification and cellular delivery of antibodies to target cancer and viral infections. This includes the engineering of an inhibitor against human and avian influenza and safer next-gen antibody-drug conjugates. These efforts led to the foundation of the highly successful start-up Tubulis.

Social Sciences and Humanities:

Breaking the Wall to an Expanded Community of Fate
The work of Margaret Levi explores how the concept “community of fate”, that is common to small groups like families, can be implemented on a global scale to address global challenges. By studying the culture of unions and our collective behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic, she proposes tangible approaches towards a global community of fate.

Digital Education: 

Breaking the Wall of Refugee Education
The Global Education Movement directed by Chrystina Russell created outstanding results in providing degree-level education to refugees. 95 percent of her students graduate and close to 90 percent are employed within six months after graduation. The Global Education Movement unlocks the potential of a new generation of leaders that can take on intractable problems – from poverty and famine to conflict and disease – that once were significant barriers to their success.

Science and Innovation Management:

Breaking the Wall of Hybrid Intelligence
The approach by Jacob Sherson to involve hundreds of thousands of people to collaborate with him in addressing complex research challenges marks a breakthrough in Science and Innovation Management. His big idea is to turn a quantum computing issue into a popular video game that – in conjunction with AI – provides insights to researchers from natural, social and cognitive sciences.

Engineering and Technology:

Breaking the Wall to Wireless Medical Robots Inside Our Body
Conventional surgeries are associated with risks. The observations Metin Sitti made in nature, studying worms and jellyfish, inspired a range of versatile microrobots that can navigate and function safely inside the human body. This breakthrough revolutionizes the way we can deliver drugs, pump fluids, perform biopsies or clear clogged vessels.

Emerging Talent:

Breaking the Wall of Neonatal Health Disparity
Shawana Tabassum has pioneered a device that allows for the measurement of biomarker levels within just 10 minutes, and at a significantly lower cost than conventional testing. This provides the opportunity for much earlier diagnosis and treatment. The device is easy to use, requires only one drop of blood from the newborn, and is portable. As a result, Shawana Tabassum’s innovation expands the reach of these diagnostic tests and brings help to where it is needed most.

Science Engagement Initiatives:

Breaking the Wall to Astronomy for the Vision-Impaired
Where most science engagement projects focus only on people without disabilities, this outreach project involves blind people in a novel and engaging way. Its unique quality is shaped by the fact that its founder, Nicolas Bonne, is a blind astrophysicist himself. Galaxies are printed as 3D-models fitting the size of a human hand. Combined with innovative teaching resources and workshops they allow blind people to experience and understand astrophysics.

Science Start-Ups:

Breaking the Wall to Carbon Negative Material
Up to this day, construction and production has a massive carbon footprint. The breakthrough achieved by Made of Air is to reverse this phenomenon. The science-based start-up combats climate change by bringing carbon-negative materials into the market at scale. It uses low-value biomass waste to produce high value, carbon-negative thermoplastics. Their products pave the way to pollution-eating facades tackling city smog.

Mikhail Eremets is currently a Group leader at the High Pressure Chemistry and Physics Group at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. He is working in the fields of high pressure physics, chemistry and materials science and is known particularly for his research on superconductivity. After completing his PhD in Physics in Moscow in 1978, he worked as a researcher at the Institute for High Pressure Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences for over 15 years before eventually becoming the director of the department of High Pressure Physics. He then went through stations in Tsukuba, Osaka and Washington D.C. before taking on his current role at the Max Planck Institute in 2001. During his career, Eremets has also completed numerous international stays as a visiting scientist and professor, including in Warsaw, Oxford (UK) and Tokyo.

Eremets is a member of the American Physical Society (APS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Sigma Xi the Scientific Research Honor Society and the American Geophysical Union. He is the recipient of numerous awards, for instance the James C. McGroddy Prize for New Materials of the American Physical Society (2020), the Bridgman Award (2017) and the Ugo Fano Gold Medal (2015). In 2020, he was named the Falling Walls Breakthrough of the Year in Physical Sciences. In addition, he was mentioned as an author of one of the ten most remarkable papers in 2019 by Nature Magazine and was part of the list of the 10 milestones of 2015 by Physics World Magazine.

Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg is an artist examining our fraught relationships with nature and technology. Through artworks, writing, and curatorial projects, Daisy’s work explores subjects as diverse as artificial intelligence, exobiology, synthetic biology, conservation, biodiversity, and evolution, as she investigates the human impulse to “better” the world. Daisy is currently a resident at Somerset House Studios, London, and is working on a major new commission for the Eden Project for 2021.

Christian P. R. Hackenberger studied chemistry at the Universität Freiburg and the UW Madison/Wisconson and performed his doctoral studies at the RTWH Aachen. After a postdoctoral stay at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he founded his own research group at the Freie Universität Berlin in 2005 as an Emmy Noether fellow. In 2012, he became Leibniz-Humboldt Professor for Chemical Biology at the Leibniz-Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology and the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. 

His group develops chemical strategies to functionalize proteins and antibodies using highly selective chemical reactions to generate protein-based therapeutics against cancer, Alzheimer and viral infections. He is a co-founder of the Munich-based company Tubulis, which engineers better tolerable cancer drugs using technologies from his lab. In 2020, Christian was the first recipient of the Falling Walls breakthrough award in the Life Sciences, recognizing his contributions to develop next-generation biopharmaceuticals.

With degrees from Bryn Mawr College and Harvard University, Margaret Levi joined the faculty of the University of Washington in 1974 and Stanford in 2014, where she directs the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. She served as president of the American Political Science Association and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. In 2019, Margaret received the Johan Skytte Prize, the political science equivalent of a Nobel. Her avocation is Australian Aboriginal art; her husband and she are avid collectors.

Dr. Russell is the Executive Director of GEM of the Southern New Hampshire University. She spearheaded the original model in Rwanda to bring university education and employment pathways to refugee learners. Previously, she was the Chief Academic Officer of Kepler, the first blended learning university program in Rwanda. She was the founding principal of Global Tech Prep, a public school focused on low-income students and technology. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Michigan with a BA in Social Organization & Minority Communities, and holds a Ph.D. in Urban Education Policy from the CUNY Graduate Center.

Jacob Sherson is professor in both dep. of Physics and Management at Aarhus University and founder and director of the Center for Hybrid Intelligence and the citizen science project ScienceAtHome.org with more than 300,000 contributors. In his interdisciplinary team both human and algorithmic problem solving is investigated through the lense of machine optimization, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics. Apart from natural and social science games, he is also investigating large-scale game-based assessment of both basic cognitive skills and 21st century skills like creativity.

Metin Sitti has pioneered many research areas, including wireless miniature medical robots, gecko-inspired microfiber adhesives, bio-inspired miniature robots, and physical intelligence. He is a director at Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. As side academic positions, he is a professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, professor at Koç University in Turkey and honorary professor at University of Stuttgart in Germany. Beforehand, he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University (2002-2014) and a research scientist at UC Berkeley (1999-2002) in USA. He is the founder of the start-up nanoGriptech, Inc. Sitti is the recipient of the ERC Advanced Grant, Rahmi Koç Science Prize, SPIE Nanoengineering Pioneer Award and NSF CAREER Award.

Shawana Tabassum is an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Texas at Tyler, where she directs the Biosensors and Bioinformatics Laboratory. Her research is focused on micro/nano-optics, electronics, microfluidics, and their applications in biomedicine and precision agriculture. She received her BSc degree in electrical engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Bangladesh, and her PhD degree in electrical and computer engineering from Iowa State University (ISU), Ames, IA, USA, in 2014 and 2018, respectively. Dr Tabassum was a recipient of the Making a Difference Award (2021), Breakthrough of the Year Award in the Emerging Talents Category of Falling Walls (2020), Robert J. Menges Award for outstanding research in educational development (2020), Postdoctoral Scholar Excellence Award for teaching and mentoring students (2020), Best global impact innovation prize from ISU’s Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship (2020, 2019), Biomedical Engineering Society’s career development award (2019), Research Excellence Award (2018), and the Best paper award finalist at IEEE Sensors conference (2016).

I am a vision impaired astronomer and science communicator at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation. I lead the Tactile Universe public engagement project, which is developing free 3D printable resources to help vision impaired people (particularly students) engage with current topics in astronomy research. I also work as consultant and adviser with groups both nationally and internationally to develop methods of communicating their science in more accessible ways.

MOA‘s mission is to combat climate change by bringing a variety of carbon-negative materials into the market at scale. This mission came from a realization that the expected construction needed by 2050 alone will bankrupt the globe’s carbon budget if materials are continued to be used as they are today. The world’s climate goals heavily rely on negative emissions technologies. However, there are still relatively few solutions that address this problem and nearly none that can bring a solution to the market at scale and cost, today. MOA Materials use low-value biomass waste to produce high value, carbon-negative thermoplastics. The materials serve a variety of applications to replace current thermoplastics at a competitive price. Current use cases include the built environment and consumer goods. The highly scalable production process creates a product that retains more CO2 than it emits during its life-cycle and is energy-positive as it creates a surplus of usable heat and electricity.

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