UCR entomologist wins Japan’s biggest prize for young researchers

Author: Jules Bernstein
January 18, 2022

The Japan Academy Medal, widely considered the most prestigious award for young Japanese researchers, only goes to six recipients annually. This year associate entomology professor Naoki Yamanaka has been elected for the honor. 

Chosen among nominees from all fields of sciences and humanities, Yamanaka was recognized for research into the way that steroid hormones control insect growth and development. 

His work may open up new ways to control steroid hormone-mediated processes, which include growth, development, sexual maturation and immunity in insects, as well as cancer progression in humans. Additionally, his research may soon be able to prevent disease-spreading mosquitoes from spreading or help boost reproduction in beneficial bumblebees. 

Contrary to previous scientific belief, Yamanaka found that a hormone required for sexual maturity in insects cannot travel across the blood-brain barrier unless it is aided by a transporter protein molecule. Blocking the transporter prevents the steroid from entering the brain, and permanently alters the behavior of fruit flies. 

Founded in 1870, The Japan Academy, based in Tokyo, is similar to America’s National Academy of Sciences. The organization honors leading Japanese scholars with distinguished records of scientific as well as other academic achievements. 

Awardees for the medal are selected from among the annual recipients of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Prize, which honors outstanding Japanese researchers under age 45. 

This year, there were 480 nominees for the 18th JSPS prize. Only 25 people are selected, and of these, only six are further selected for the Japan Academy Medal. Yamanaka has been awarded both prizes. 

An in-person awards ceremony will take place on Feb. 3 in Tokyo, with members of the royal family scheduled to attend. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Yamanaka is unable to join them. His Tokyo-based parents will attend on his behalf.

Yamanaka said he’s grateful for the recognition he’s received, and that it is motivational. 

“I take these awards as strong encouragement for my lab members and collaborators to further pursue the significance of our work on insect steroid hormones,” he said. “I hope the award will raise awareness amongst researchers about how hormones are transported in insects as well as other organisms, including humans.”