Maurizio Porfiri and colleagues win the 2024 Aspen Institute Italia Award for Scientific Research and Cooperation

Award recognizes scientific achievement resulting from U.S. and Italian collaboration

group of scientists in suits holding an award plaque

Maurizio Porfiri (third from right) and colleagues accepting the 2024 Aspen Institute Italia Award. Credit: Aspen Institute Italia

On June 18, 2024, Maurizio Porfiri, NYU Tandon Institute Professor and director of its Center for Urban Science + Progress (CUSP), and a team of collaborators received the 2024 Aspen Institute Italia Award for Scientific Research and Cooperation for their pioneering study on the structural adaptations of deep-sea sponges.

The annual prize, now in its 9th year, recognizes exceptional U.S.-Italian collaboration in the sciences. This year’s award was presented at a ceremony in Rome attended by Giulio Tremonti, Chair of the Aspen Institute Italia, and notable Italian academic researchers working in Italy and the United States. 

Published in the journal Nature, the winning study analyzed how the unique structure of the "Venus flower basket" sponge (Euplectella aspergillum) allows it to withstand the extreme underwater currents of its deep-sea habitat, through an optimized distribution of its glass-like skeletal material.

By performing complex hydrodynamic simulations on the Marconi 100 supercomputer at Italy's CINECA, the researchers could model the interaction between the sponges and surrounding fluid flows in unprecedented detail.

According to the researchers, the skeletal architecture of these deep-sea sponges could inform more resilient and efficient designs for buildings, ships, planes and other structures.

"This recognition from Aspen Institute Italia demonstrates that the most impactful scientific endeavors often transcend boundaries, be they disciplinary or international or both," said Porfiri, who earned academic degrees from Sapienza University of Rome and Virginia Tech. "My own work benefits immensely from the diverse perspectives and expertise of colleagues across Italy, the United States, and elsewhere. I'm honored to be part of this collaborative effort and grateful for the award."

Along with Porfiri, members of the winning interdisciplinary team are Giacomo Falcucci, University of Rome at Tor Vergata; Sauro Succi, Italian Institute of Technology, Rome and Harvard University; Giorgio Amati, CINECA, Rome; Pierluigi Fanelli, University of the Tuscia, Viterbo; Vesselin K. Krastev, University of Rome at Tor Vergata; and Giovanni Polverino, University of the Tuscia, Viterbo. 

The team’s research on the Venus flower basket sponge is ongoing. Last month, a study published in Physical Review Letters, co-led by Porfiri and Falcucci, showed how computer models revealed that the Venus flower basket sponge's spiral skeletal structure allows it to passively draw in and filter plankton-rich waters into its body cavity without expending energy on pumping, a natural engineering feat that researchers say engineers could mimic for energy efficient structural designs.

Porfiri joins a growing list of NYU Tandon faculty members receiving honors for their contributions to their academic fields and society at large. To learn more, visit NYU Tandon Faculty Awards & Honors.