Obama Honors Nine Scientists with National Medal of Science

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Publication date: 
19 May 2016

At a White House ceremony, the president awarded the National Medal of Science to nine recipients, including physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Shirley Ann Jackson.

National Medal of Science

This afternoon, President Obama hosted 17 distinguished scientists, engineers, and inventors at the White House for a formal ceremony to award the National Medal of Science to nine honorees and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to eight. These individuals are the last who will receive the nation’s highest honors for achievement and leadership in advancing the fields of science and technology under this president.

After a fanfare entrance to the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” Obama dispensed with the pageantry and remarked to audience laughter that “the amount of brainpower in this room right now is astonishing.” After noting the presence of members of Congress, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the president’s science adviser John Holdren, National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France Cordova, and Director and Patent and Trademark Office Michelle Lee, the president gave prepared remarks underscoring the importance of recognizing our nation’s scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers. Said Obama:

We want the winners of science fairs, we want those who have invented the products and lifesaving medicines and are engineering our future to be celebrated .... Because immersing young people in science, math, engineering, that’s what’s going to carry the American spirit of innovation through the 21st century and beyond … There are few better examples for young people to follow than the Americans we honor today.

As president, I’m proud to honor each of you for your contributions to our nation. As an American, I am proud of everything you’ve done to contribute to that fearless spirit of innovation that has made us what we are and doesn’t just benefit our citizens but the world.

In the physical science category, the president awarded one of the National Medals of Science to Shirley Ann Jackson, currently serving as the eighteenth president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, “for her insightful work in condensed matter physics and particle physics, for her science-rooted public policy achievements, and for her inspiration to the next generation of professionals in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.” Obama shared how Jackson’s life was changed “for good” by two events of the 1950s – the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Education and the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, which sparked the space race.  

Jackson went on to be the first African-American to earn a doctorate in physics from MIT and the second woman to do so anywhere in America. Obama also praised her contributions to science policy and broadening access to STEM fields: “Over the years, Dr. Jackson has revolutionized the way science informs public policy, from rethinking the safety of our nuclear plants to training a new generation of scientists and engineers that looks more like the diverse and inclusive America that she knows.

The seven additional recipients of the National Medal of Science were:

  • Armand Paul Alivisatos of the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, “for his foundational contributions to the field of nanoscience, for the development of nanocrystals as a building block of nanotechnologies, and for his leadership in the nanoscience community”;
  • Michael Artin of MIT, “for his leadership in modern algebraic geometry, including three major bodies of work”;
  • Albert Bandura of Stanford University, “for fundamental advances in the understanding of social learning mechanisms and self-referent thinking processes in motivational and behavior change, and for the development of social-cognitive theory of human action and psychological development”;
  • Stanley Falkow of Stanford’s School of Medicine: “for his monumental contributions toward understanding how microbes cause disease and resist the effects of antibiotics, and for inspiring mentorship that created the field of molecular microbial pathogenesis”;
  • Rakesh K. Jain of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, “for pioneering research at the interface of engineering and oncology, including tumor micro-environments, drug delivery and imaging, and for ground-breaking discoveries of principles leading to the development and novel use of drugs for the treatment of cancer and non-cancerous diseases”;
  • Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington: “for pioneering contributions to human genetics, including discovery of the VRCA1 susceptibility gene for breast cancer, and for development of genetic methods to match disappeared victims of human right abuses with their families”;
  • Simon Levin of Princeton University, “for international leadership in environmental science straddling ecology and applied mathematics to promote conservation, for his impact on a generation of environmental scientists, and for his critical contributions to ecology, environmental economics, epidemiology, applied mathematics, and evolution”; and
  • Geraldine Richmond of University of Oregon, “for her landmark discoveries of the molecular characteristics of water surfaces, for her creative demonstration of how her findings impact many key biological, environmental, chemical, and technical processes, and for her extraordinary efforts in the United States around the globe to promote women in science.

The National Medal of Science is administered by the NSF, which solicits nominations for candidates each year from the scientific community. Nominations are sent to the Committee of the National Medal of Science, which is composed of fourteen presidential appointees comprising twelve scientists and two ex officio members—the president’s science advisor and the president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Committee makes its recommendations to the president based on nominees’ extraordinary knowledge in and contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences. Awardees must have done work of outstanding merit or that has had a major impact on scientific thought in their field.

According to the medals website, the National Medal of Science has been awarded to 487 scientists and engineers since its establishment. The recipient database (from 1962 to the present) is available here.

At the end of the nearly 30 minute ceremony, President Obama adjourned the event with upbeat parting words:

Science rocks!

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