Awards, Mind & body, People, Research

Sleep researcher Matthew Walker wins Carl Sagan science prize

Award recognizes major contributions to the public understanding and appreciation of science

Matthew Walker makes presentation in front of an orange background
Matthew Walker presenting at the Google Zeitgeist conference in 2019. (Image courtesy of Matthew Walker)

UC Berkeley sleep researcher Matthew Walker, author of the international bestseller, Why We Sleep, and numerous breakthrough studies that explore what happens to the brain as we slumber, has won the 2020 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization.

The prize, which comes with $5,000 in cash, is awarded by Wonderfest, a San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting scientific curiosity and discovery. It was launched in 1997, shortly after the death of American astronomer Carl Sagan. The annual prize recognizes researchers who “have contributed mightily to the public understanding and appreciation of science.”

“I am humbled, not to mention utterly surprised, at receiving the Carl Sagan Prize. Carl Sagan has remained one of my true scientific heroes and inspiration, especially in regard to the public communication of science,” Walker said.

“To honor this award, I remain committed to our research investigating the effects of human sleep on health, disease and sickness at UC Berkeley, and in parallel, the mission of communicating the importance of sleep to society—a society that is still so bereft of the sleep it desperately requires,” he added.

Last year’s Sagan Prize winner was Berkeley astronomer Dan Werthimer, project director of the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Other Berkeley winners of the Sagan Prize have included biochemist Jennifer Doudna, co-discoverer of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool; biologist and paleontologist Kevin Padian; and astronomers Gibor Basri, Geoff Marcy, Alex Filippenko and Jill Tarter.

A native of Liverpool, U.K., Walker is a professor of psychology and neuroscience who joined Berkeley’s faculty in 2007 after a stint as a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. He is founder and director of Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science.

Walker has promoted his research findings via a TED talk, a CBS “60 Minutes” special and in NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast series, among numerous other venues. He has served as a sleep consultant to the NBA, NFL and Pixar Animation Studios, among other Fortune 500 enterprises.

His 2017 book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, received extensive coverage in the news media.

“Sagan would be proud to know that Matthew Walker, so renowned for his research and his outreach, has received Wonderfest’s Sagan Prize for 2020,” said Tucker Hiatt, the organization’s executive director.


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