Congratulations to the eleven winners of the 2020 Lasker Essay Contest!

The Lasker Foundation’s annual Essay Contest invites young scientists from around the world to discuss big questions in biomedical research and policy. This year, we asked participants to describe how a notable scientist has inspired them – through the scientist’s personality, life experiences, and/or through their scientific contributions.

With hundreds of excellent essays submitted from contestants around the world, we found it difficult to choose among so many thoughtful entries. Ultimately, we selected eleven essays, from Emily Ashkin, David Basta, Avash Das, William Dunn, Safwan Elkhatib, Laurel Gabler, Kwabena Kusi-Mensah, Lisa Learman, Olivia Lucero, Hannah Mason, and Samantha Wong.

All winners have been invited to the 2021 Lasker Awards Luncheon on October 1, 2021.

Read the collected 2020 Essays, published in partnership with the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Foundation.


Emily Ashkin, Stanford University School of Medicine

Emily Ashkin is a PhD candidate in the Cancer Biology program at the Stanford University School of Medicine. She was born in Charlotte, North Carolina to an Argentine Jewish family and earned a BS in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Her dissertation research in Monte Winslow's lab focuses on understanding the impact of the cohesin complex on tumorigenesis and the tumor immune microenvironment in lung cancer. Emily prioritizes volunteering with programs that emphasize diversity and inclusion in STEM. Outside of science, Emily enjoys hiking and painting.

Essay: J. Michael Bishop: A Scientist for the Next Generation



David Basta, Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California

David Basta is a 4th year medical student in the USC-Caltech MD-PhD Program at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. He received his PhD in Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology in May 2019, where he conducted his thesis work in the lab of Dianne K. Newman studying the genetics and physiology of bacterial growth arrest. Following medical school, David plans to pursue a residency that prioritizes his continued development as a physician scientist.

Essay: For the Love of Science


Avash Das, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Born and brought up in Kolkata, Avash Das graduated from one of the oldest medical schools in eastern India, before he relocated to Boston to pursue a research fellowship in cardiovascular disease at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The rich scientific environment in Boston, coupled with its confluence with humanities and arts, shaped his formative academic years in the USA. He shifted base to Dallas to pursue his graduate studies at UT Southwestern Medical Center and is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate in the laboratory of Helen Hobbs and Jonathan Cohen, studying the role of lipids in metabolic diseases. In the future, he plans to continue his research and clinical training to become a physician-scientist. Apart from adding fancy hats to the existing repertoire in his wardrobe, Avash likes to read non-fiction science books, watch documentaries and international movies, sample local restaurants and recreate traditional South Asian dishes in the tiny corner of his kitchen in Dallas.

Essay: Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein: Tribute to My Inspiration



William Dunn, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust

William Dunn is an Internal Medicine Trainee at Addenbrooke's hospital and an Academic Clinical Fellow in Haematology, based at the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre. Originally from Erskine in the West of Scotland, he graduated from the University of Glasgow with an intercalated BSc, medical degree, and MSc in Bioinformatics. After working as a junior doctor in Glasgow and Edinburgh, he has taken up an Academic Clinical Fellowship in Cambridge, where he is currently based in George Vassiliou's lab undertaking research related to age-related clonal haematopoiesis. In the longer term, William aspires to become a clinician-scientist in malignant haematology. 

Essay: Sweet are the Uses of Adversity


Safwan Elkhatib, University of Nebraska Medical Center

Safwan Elkhatib is a Midwest native from Bettendorf, Iowa who completed his undergraduate degree at Iowa State University. He fell in love with research and medicine, which brought him to the MD-PhD program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He is currently completing his PhD under the direction of Adam Case, with his doctoral research focused on the mechanistic study of how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can alter the inflammatory milieu.

His long-term career aspirations are to be a physician-scientist at an academic medical center, balancing atop the three-legged stool of academic medicine as a clinician, researcher, and educator. Outside of science, he is passionate about student-driven efforts to address health inequity in our communities.

Essay: Salk, Sabin, and the Crown of Health


Laurel Gabler, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Laurel Gabler is completing her 3rd year of pediatrics residency at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Upon graduation, she worked in Tanzania as an HIV educator for an NGO and in Thailand at a government hospital as a Luce Scholar. Before earning her M.D. from Harvard Medical School, Laurel earned a MSc in Global Health Science and a DPhil in Public Health through the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Her research focused on health-seeking behaviors and health service delivery in rural Nepal, where she lived for two-and-a-half years, funded through a Fulbright fellowship. Laurel continued her global health work during medical school through the Harvard South Asia Institute, where she helped community health workers in India devise community empowerment projects. During residency Laurel had the opportunity to return to Tanzania to teach interns and help devise medical training tools for local pediatricians. After residency, Laurel will work as a pediatrician in the Emergency Department at CHOP for a year before beginning a Pediatric Emergency Medicine fellowship. She hopes to continue to work at the intersection of public health research, clinical medicine, and health education both domestically and internationally.

EssayPutting “People’s Health in People’s Hands”: How the Bangs Inspired My Personal Journey


Kwabena Kusi-Mensah, University of Cambridge

Kwabena is a board-certified psychiatrist with additional training in Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) based in Kumasi, Ghana. He undertook his medical training at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and his residency training in Ghana and Nigeria. His passion for children’s mental health led him to establish the first multidisciplinary CAMH clinic integrated into a general hospital in Ghana in 2017, after returning from post-graduate training in CAMH in Nigeria where he graduated at the top of his class. Currently, Kwabena is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge where he is working on developing culturally appropriate tools for assessing frontal lobe functioning for children and adolescents in West Africa, as well as risk factors affecting cognition and mental well-being. His career goal is to become a physician-scientist working to build local research capacity and be an advocate for young people’s mental health in the West African sub-region. 

Essay: As One Single Tribe: Thinking Globally and Locally 


Lisa Learman, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

As a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Lisa Learman studies the contribution of aberrant activity-induced splicing changes in neurological disease under the mentorship of Paul Worley. 

Lisa first became interested in science at Oberlin College, when her BIO 101 professor described wind as air molecules moving down their concentration gradient.

In addition to research, she volunteers at the Maryland Science Center, edits for the Hopkins Biomedical Odyssey blog, plays piano in community theater pit orchestras, hikes with her partner, cuddles with her cat Dexter, and avidly consumes dystopian fiction.

Essay: With the Corn, Against the Grain


Olivia Lucero, Oregon Health & Science University

Olivia M. Lucero is a Dermatologist at Oregon Health & Science University who researches targeted therapies for cutaneous & hematological malignancies. Olivia was born in Salt Lake City and earned her MD at the University of Washington and concurrently completed a Howard Hughes Medical Research Fellowship. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Brian Druker, and continues her clinical work at OHSU where she supervises a resident-run surgery clinic. She plans to complete a Cutaneous Oncology Fellowship with a goal of being an independently-funded dermatologic surgeon scientist who improves the quality of life for patients with skin cancer. In her spare time, Olivia loves to listen to music and adventure outdoors with her husband, Lars, and son, Elias. 

Essay: Genetics as a Tool for Generational Empowerment


Hannah Mason, University of Cambridge

Hannah Mason is a fourth year NIH-Cambridge Scholar pursuing her PhD in the laboratories of Dorian McGavern at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Ole Paulsen at the University of Cambridge. She studies how the brain’s immune system responds to and is shaped by repetitive head injury and degenerative processes. After Hannah completes her PhD, she will return to her home state of Georgia to attend medical school at Emory University. She hopes one day to be physician-scientist designing therapies and treating people with neurodegenerative diseases. Outside of the laboratory, Hannah enjoys rowing, baking, and writing comedy essays.

Essay: My Gym Genie: Gathering Inspiration from Dr. John Schiller


Samantha Wong, University of California Davis School of Medicine

Samantha Wong is an MD candidate at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine in the Academic Research Careers for Medical Doctors (ARC-MD) pathway. She graduated from Stanford University with an MS in Community Health and Prevention Research, where she wrote her thesis on tobacco policies on college campuses. She is passionate about cancer prevention from an interdisciplinary perspective, particularly in diverse and underserved communities.

Her research interests range from tobacco cessation and public health to translational medicine and dermatology. She hopes to pursue a career in academic medicine. In her spare time, she enjoys reading newspapers and gardening.

Essay: Fauci: Science as a Voice of Reason