11 Up-and-Coming Scientists You Need to Know

Danielle N. Lee, behavioral biologist

All photos are by Ryan Lash/TED unless otherwise noted.

Behavioral biologist and blogger Danielle N. Lee studies the African giant pouched rat, which were first deployed in Mozambique in 2000 by APOPO — a Belgian humanitarian organization — to detect and clear land mines. Land mines kill or maim up to 20,000 people each year in formerly war-torn countries in Africa and Asia, and deprive people of valuable agricultural land. The rats are easy to train and care for, adaptable and too light to detonate the mines. Trained to detect TNT, the rats walk systematically up and down a field, and scratch at the ground to signal a find, while trainers note the location. Yet not much is known about these animals. Lee is studying them to learn more about their social structure, their reproductive cycles, how they respond to various environments, and more. She also assesses individual rats to determine which are best for various detection jobs and compares their behavior to genetic data. Her research will help selectively breed rats for efficiency and deploy them as soon as possible to save more lives. Follow Lee on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Danielle N. Lee.

Tal Danino, bioengineer

There are more bacteria in our bodies than stars in our galaxy. But did you know that we can program them as though they were computers? Bioengineer and artist Tal Danino first engineered bacteria to producefluorescent proteins in a rhythmic fashion and generated a molecule that allows bacteria to communicate and synchronize. He next turned his attention to using programmable bacteria to detect and treat diseases like cancer. He engineered bacteria to signal the presence of liver cancer by producing a molecule that changes the color of urine and programmed bacteria to produce molecules that cause tumors to shrink. Danino also produces beautiful works of art using bacteria engineered to form complex patterns, such as an intricate mandala, a symbol of the universe that speaks to the power and beauty of the invisible.


Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer

It might be a good idea to take care of Earth before we colonize Mars. Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz is worried that our undying belief that we can find a habitable planet “out there” to save us from destruction may be preventing us from fully appreciating and making the best of the only habitable planet we do know — Earth. She should know: Walkowicz works with NASA’s Kepler mission, searching for unknown planets by looking for the dimming of starlight as planets pass in front of them. She also looks for clues as to whether the planets we do find might be habitable. “You could say I look for choice alien real estate!” says the TED Senior Fellow. Meanwhile, Earth is undergoing dramatic changes at the hands of humanity. But is that wise? We look to Mars as a possible new home because its environment somewhat resembles our own deserts, for example. But, she points out, we still have a long way to go in colonizing our own deserts. Planetary exploration and preservation are two sides of the same goal, says Walkowicz. Maybe we can do both at once. Follow Walkowicz on Twitter.


Laura Boykin, computational biologist

Whiteflies can utterly destroy farmers’ livelihoods, transmitting a destructive virus to the staple crop cassava, on which 700 million people worldwide depend for their daily food. Smallholder farmers in Africa rely on cassava not only to feed their families, but as a cash crop that pays for the other necessities of life, such as school fees and health care. Computational biologist Laura Boykin uses genomics, supercomputing and phylogenetics to study the speciation of whitefly. So far, she has identified 34 species ofBemisia tabaci, information crucial for researchers to develop cassava that is genetically modified to be both virus resistant and resistant to specific species of whitefly. Now her team at the University of Western Australia is making this information available to the scientific community with the launch of WhiteFlyBase — the world’s first database of whitefly genetic information. Boykin’s dream: to soon see East African markets filled with healthy and plentiful cassava, and for the region to be food secure for many years to come.

Whiteflies on cassava. Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT).

Jonathan Home, quantum physicist

Have you ever seen an atom? These are the building blocks of matter. Quantum scientist Jonathan Home is isolating them in order to build a new kind of computer, one that can solve complex problems of science and mathematics — as well as crack RSA cryptography — far more quickly than a classic supercomputer, using far less space. So how to build one? Home manipulates individual atoms’ quantum states using laser pulses and manipulates the connections between atoms to create circuits, using atoms as quantum wires to communicate information. How close are we to quantum computing? There is no fundamental barrier, says Home. The challenge now is to build larger systems, requiring building more complex structures, something that may be possible with fabrication methods used to make the chips in our current-day laptops.


Greg Gage, neuroscientist

Did you know it’s possible to move someone else’s arm using your brain? Neuroscientist and co-founder of Backyard Brains Greg Gage’s Human-to-Human Interface hooks up electrical activity from one person’s brain to the ulnar nerve of another’s so that flexing an arm forces the other’s to move. The Human-to-Human interface is the latest in his set of low-cost, DIY kits designed to make learning about neuroscience accessible to young people. See Gage hook up two Fellows, Jost Franko and Jonathan Home, at TED2015and watch his TED Talk, “The cockroach beatbox.”


Kristen Marhaver, coral scientist

Kristen Marhaver investigates what baby corals need to thrive. To do this, she scuba-dives at night to catch coral spawn when they are released into the water — an event that happens only once a year — and raises the larvae in the lab. In experiments, Marhaver and her colleagues have discovered that corals not only have surface texture and color preferences, they’re also drawn to certain bacterial scents. This data allows researchers to construct inviting environments that encourage and boost coral settlement back in the ocean using reintroduced lab-raised juvenile coral. Marhaver’s research team was recently able to harvest the spawn of and successfully breed the Caribbean pillar coral, which scientists thought had stopped reproducing. This means we now have the research tools to study why they are disappearing — and we may be able to shift the odds in favor of saving the world’s corals. For more, read about “A day in the life of a baby coral” and follow Marhaver on Twitter.

Spawning coral. Photo by Kristen Marhaver

Jedidah Isler, astrophysicist

At 12, Jedidah Isler fell for the love of her life: the night sky. Now an astrophysicist, she studies some of the most exotic objects in the universe, including supermassive hyperactive black holes called blazars, or blazing quasars. These devour material at the rate of a thousand times more than an average supermassive black hole and produce powerful particle streams. Blazars pull in material via an accretion disk that spins around the black hole, and shoot it out via jets that move at 99.99 percent the speed of light— some of which are pointed at Earth. Isler is working to understand how and where the highest-energy light from the jet is made and how energy is transported through the galaxy. “Who knew that chasing after the universe would ground me so deeply to my mission here on Earth? Then again, when do we ever know where love’s first flutter will truly take us?” Follow Isler onTwitter.

Artist’s concept of a blazar, with a jet streaming outward. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Aomawa Shields, astrophysicist

Looking for climate systems on exoplanets is like trying to glimpse a fruit fly in front of a headlight — light years away. Astronomer Aomawa Shieldsseeks planets in the universe where life might exist. Some astronomers do this work by measuring the distance between planets and their suns, but Shields uses computer models to calculate the kind of atmosphere a planet would need in order to be able to support life — because while distance to a star is one marker of habitability, it’s not the only one. For example, while Venus looks hospitable, its surface is 900 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead — not due to its proximity to the sun but to its thick atmosphere, which traps heat. A classically trained actor, Shields also works to interweave science, art, and education with her organization Rising Stargirls, which teaches astronomy to middle-school girls of color, using theater, writing and visual art.


Patience Mthunzi, laser physicist

Taking medicines orally is the easiest, most painless way to deliver drugs to the human body, but the medicine is diluted as it travels through our systems on the way to the affected area, reducing effectiveness. This is also true of anti-HIV drugs. That’s one of several reasons why laser scientistPatience Mthunzi is developing a method that uses lasers to pierce tiny holes in HIV-infected cells to deliver medicine directly to infected cells. She’s now carrying out the research in petri dishes, but the goal is to test it in the human body using a three-headed device that will include a laser, a camera to find the site of infection and a drug delivery mechanism. If it works, this technology could one day totally eradicate HIV in the system.


Nizar Ibrahim, paleontologist

One hundred million years ago, what is now the Sahara desert was a lush and extreme ecosystem that paleontologist and National Geographic explorer Nizar Ibrahim describes as the most dangerous place in the history of our planet. “Three different kinds of flying dragons inhabit this alien world,” he says, “and its huge river systems cover an area approaching the size of the continental US — in which giant river monsters patrol in search of car-sized fish.” This aquatic dinosaur, Spinosaurus, was bigger thanT rex, had a sail taller than a human, long slender jaws for fishing — and, says Ibrahim, makes our imaginary dragons seem pretty boring by comparison. Ibrahim, who helped co-discover the Spinosaurus, combs the Sahara sands for fossils of these fantastic creatures, his discoveries resurrecting a real past more bizarre than we could possibly imagine.

Artwork by Davide Bonadonna.

A version of this piece was originally posted on the TED Blog.

The TED Fellows program hand-picks young innovators from around the world to raise international awareness of their work and maximize their impact. Follow the TED Fellows on Medium.


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