Prize to Scientists Working on Real World Problems

“[T]he importance of rigorous science for addressing real world problems” is one of the key revelations provided by the ProSPER.Net–Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development. That is in the words of Yodi Mahendradhata, winner of the award in the category of “Health with a Focus on Poverty Eradication”.

Like Mahendradhata, Tanapon Phenrat and Jun Yang — winners in the categories of “Sustainable Infrastructure” and “Sustainable Consumption and Production” — are examples of young researchers who have been dedicating themselves to bridging the gap between laboratory findings and the concrete application of their work.

The ProSPER.Net–Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development is awarded annually in partnership with Elsevier and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to recognize young scientists and researchers, based in the Asia-Pacific region (excluding the United States and Canada), whose work focuses on the many complex challenges that we face nowadays.

All qualified applications to compete for the award are evaluated by an international panel of recognized experts in sustainable development. Winners are chosen on the basis of three criteria: number of citations, number and quality of publications and patents, and documented social impact.

The three award categories change every year to cover a wide range of topics — a real attempt to spotlight what researchers have been generating in terms of applied knowledge for sustainable development in different fields. The competition attracts young change-makers who are concerned with current unsustainable problems faced around the world and are determined to continue pursuing their work to promote better livelihoods, preserve natural resources, improve food security, and positively impact health and poverty issues.

Winners receive a US$1,000 cash prize and a fellowship with the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation that provides travel and living expenses to spend up to eighteen months collaborating with any research group of the recipient’s choosing in Germany.

Restoring contaminated groundwater and soil

The selection panel for the Sustainable Infrastructure category — Tony Dalton from RMIT University, Hidefumi Imura from Yokohama City University, Aki Suwa from the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies and Apostolos Giannis from Nanyang Technological University — was very impressed by the way winner Phenrat combines his work as a scientific researcher, as a problem-solver and as a communicator. According to their assessment, he has developed new knowledge, regulations and capacity to lead the search for solutions to important environment-related infrastructure problems.

Phenrat’s work primarily focuses on remediation of contaminated groundwater and soil. In Thailand, groundwater and soil in the vicinity of industrial estates are often contaminated with hazardous substances such as volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Concerned with the local community’s health and the state of natural resources, Phenrat has been developing and implementing remediation technologies and management protocols for restoring and sustaining soil and groundwater resources.

Through a combination of laboratory studies on ways to accelerate the remediation of contaminated groundwater using nanotechnology and real implementation of the developed solutions using a multi-stakeholder approach that involves governmental agencies, the private sector, local communities and researchers in other fields such as geology and health, Phenrat is making a real impact on restoration of natural resources in different regions in Thailand.

This experience led him to start working on practical guidelines and a database that could be used throughout the country, allowing various stakeholders to understand the processes of remediation and its effective implementation, improving technical capacity and providing a management tool to solve contamination problems.

Health as a pre-condition for sustainable development

Mahendradhata, from Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, works with poverty-related diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, dengue and other less-studied tropical diseases. His approach follows the idea that health is a pre-condition for and an outcome of sustainable development, playing a central role amongst the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development.

Mahendradhata’s work goes beyond research and local boundaries. He has been working with policymakers in Indonesia, contributing to important national policy documents such as the National Strategy for the control of tuberculosis (2013-2014) and malaria (2013-2014). He has also touched upon capacity-building through the development of training modules — within the framework of the World Health Organization and TDR (the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases) — that focus on combating major diseases of the poor and disadvantaged. This work is sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

The panelists for the health category — Kenji Shibuya from the University of Tokyo, Hari Kusnanto from Universitas Gadjah Mada and Ritu Priya from Jawarlahal Nehru University in India — were unanimous in acknowledging the high social impact, the contribution to policy and the relevance of Mahendradhata’s research. They highlighted that his work could easily be applicable to other health-related interventions because it examines issues from the perspective of the users in a contextualized approach that is extremely relevant to the poor strata of the population.

Transgenic sweet potato for energy

Yang from the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the winner in the category of Sustainable Consumption and Production, described his work as a reflection of his goal “to integrate bioinformatics and genetic engineering for crop improvement”.

Yang has been genetically transforming sweet potato to enhance its tolerance to droughts and salt, its virus resistance and its production of a better quality of starch. His research results made it possible to cultivate sweet potato in areas otherwise not appropriate for agriculture because the salt contained in the soil normally prevents this type of activity, such as in coastal reclamation areas, for example.

A higher yield and improved quality of starch are results that contribute to improving the production of raw materials for the biofuel industry. In connection to this, Yang is also working on a model factory using sweet potato as a base for bioethanol production.

Tsuyoshi Fujita from the Japanese National Institute for Environmental Studies, Zhu Dajian from Tongji University in China and Somporn Kamolsiripichaiporn from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, the panelists for the Sustainable Consumption and Production category, highlighted Yang’s research accomplishments and the pertinent contribution of his work, especially in terms of the social transformation potential brought by the sustainable use of land in the food and the biomass energy supply systems.

Awarding for the future

As the categories change every year, the organizers face an annual challenge of identifying and consulting experts in different areas to serve as panelists, and preparing for the symposium and award ceremony in a different country in Asia. Three finalists in each category are identified and invited to present their work at the symposium, where panelists judge and decide on the winner.

The coordination of this process entails a huge amount of work, but every year the organizing team is pleased to liaise with enthusiastic panelists and an increasing number of candidates. The most important and positive spin-off that the award has had in the region is to bring attention to how research can affect and foster sustainable development.

“Every year we see more and more outstanding work being done by young scientists in the Asia-Pacific region,” says Kazuhiko Takemoto, Director of the Education for Sustainable Development Programme at UNU-IAS and of the ProSPER.Net Secretariat.

Takemoto says he hopes that “this award serves as an inspiration to young researchers who will continue to tackle sustainability challenges and keep up their efforts to build sustainable societies”.

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Prize to Scientists Working on Real World Problems by Aurea Christine Tanaka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Aurea Christine Tanaka is a Research Associate with the Education for Sustainable Development Programme at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Yokohama, Japan.