Meet the Medal Recipients, Plus President Obama’s Remarks

In a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House, last night President Barack Obama awarded the National Medals of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation; the highest honors bestowed by the United States Government upon scientists, engineers and inventors. During his remarks last night President Obama was in typical form, interchangably jovial and serious. The event left one feeling that President Obama would like very much for science education to become a priority.  What follows is a transcript of President Obama’s remarks, followed by information about each of the Medal recipients, their research and innovations that lead to each being selected for recognition.

President Obama’s Remarks at the Ceremony:

Please everyone sit down, sit down we have a lot of work to do here. Have a seat. Welcome to the White House. It is a great honor to be joined by so many leading researchers and innovators… The achievements of the men and women who are on stage today stand as the testament to the ingenuity to their zeal for discovery and to the willingness to give of themselves and to sacrifice in order to expand the reach in human understanding. All of us have benefited from their work. The scientists of this room helped develop the semi conductors and microprocessors that have propelled the information age. They’ve modeled the inner workings of the human mind and the complex processes that shape the earth’s climate. They’ve conducted pioneering research for mathematics to quantum physics into the sometimes strange and unexpected laws that govern our universe.

Folks here can also claim inventions like the digital camera, which has revolutionized photography as all of these folks back here will testify (laughter) as well as Super Glue, which in addition to fascinating children has actually saved lives as a means of sealing wounds. And the men and women we celebrate today have helped unlock the secrets of genetics and disease, of nanotechnology and solar energy, of chemistry and biology. Break throughs that provide so many benefits and hold so much potential from new sources of electricity to new ways of diagnosing and treating illness.

Along the way, many of these folks have broken down barriers for women and minorities who have traditionally been underrepresented in scientific fields. But obviously are no less capable of contributing to the scientific enterprise. Just as an example, at the start of her career, decades ago, Esther Cornwell was hired as an assistant engineer. But soon after she was told that this position wasn’t open to a woman. She had to serve as an engineer’s assistant instead. Of course that didn’t stop her from becoming a pioneer in semiconductors and materials science. It’s no exaggeration to say that the scientists and innovators in this room have saved lives, improved our health and well being, helped unleash whole new industries and millions of jobs, transformed the way we work, and learn and communicate. And this incredible contribution serves as proof not only of their incredible creativity and skill but as the promise of science itself.

Every day in research laboratories and on proving grounds, in private labs and university campuses, men and women conduct the difficult, often frustrating work of discovery. It isn’t easy. It may take years to prove a hypothesis correct or decades to learn that it isn’t correct. Often the competition can be fierce, whether in designing a product or securing a grant. And rarely do those who give their all to this pursuit, receive the attention or the acclaim they deserve. Yet it is in these labs, often late at night, often fueled by dangerous combinations of coffee and obsession, (laughter) that our future is being won. For in a global economy, the key to our prosperity will never be to compete by paying our workers less or building cheaper, lower quality products. That’s not our advantage. The key to our success has been what it has always been, to compete by developing new products, by generating new industries, by maintaining our role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation. It’s absolutely essential to our future.

And that’s why we are here today and why I look forward to events like these. I believe one of the most important jobs that I have as President is to restore science to its rightful place. That means strengthening our commitment to research it means ensuring that our government makes decisions based on the best evidence, rather than politics, it means we are forming and improving math and science education and encouraging the private sector to inspire young people to pursuit careers in science and engineering. And it means fostering a climate of innovation and entrepreneurship. From incentives and clean energy to tax beaks, to start ups.

I’d also point out it is not just a job for government, creating this climate depends on all of us. Including businesses and universities and non-profits. One of the most important ways in which we can restore science to its rightful place is by celebrating the contributions of men and women like all of you. Because that is how we’ll excite a new generation to follow in your footsteps. That’s how we can spark the imagination of a young person who just might change the world. And I was reminded of how important this is just a few weeks ago. We held a science fair here at the White house. Some of you may have heard about it. We welcome all the time championship sports teams to the white house to celebrate their victories and I thought we ought to do the same thing for the winners of science fairs and robotic contests and math competitions. Because those young people often don’t get the credit that they deserve. Nobody rushes on the field and dumps Gatorade on them (laughter) when you win a science award. Maybe they should!

So I got to meet these incredibly talented and enthusiastic young men and women. There was a team of high school kids from TN that had designed a self-powered water purification system and we had robots running all through the state dining room. The last young person I spoke to was a young woman from Texas. She was 16 years old. She was studying biology as a freshman; decided she was interested in cancer research so she taught herself chemistry during the summer. Then designed a science project to look at new cancer drugs based on some experimental drugs that are activated by light. They could allow a more focused treatment that targets the cancer cells while living, healthy cells remain unharmed. She goes on to design her own drug, wins the international science competition and she told me that she and her high school science teacher are being approached by laboratories across the country to collaborate (laughter) on this potential new cancer treatment. This is a true story. 16 years old taught herself chemistry. Incredibly inspiring and at a time of significant challenge in this country, at a moment when people are feeling so much hardship in their lives, this has to give us hope for the future. It ought to remind us of the incredible potential of this country and its people as long as we unlock it. As long as we put resources into it and we celebrate it, we encourage it and we embrace it.

Carl Sagan once said that ‘Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.’ That way of thinking, that combination of curiosity and skepticism, a sense of wonder and the willingness to test our assumptions is the root of what we are honoring today. It is what spurred countless advances and conferred untold benefits on our society and it is an idea that has driven our success for as long as we have been a nation. And I am confident that this spirit of discovery and invention will continue to help us succeed in the years of decades to come. And our country owes every one of our Laureates with us today a big measure of thanks for nurturing that spirit and expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.

So it is now my privilege to present the National Medals of Science and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.

The National Medal of Science is awarded annually and recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. The National Medal of Technology and Innovation is administered by the USPTO and recognizes individuals or companies for their outstanding contributions to the promotion of technology for the improvement of the economic, environmental or social well being of the United States.

The 2009 National Medal of Science recipients were:

Yakir Aharonav – Chapman University, is an Israeli physicist receiving the Medal for his contributions to the foundations of quantum physics and for drawing out the unexpected implications of that field, ranging from the Aharonov-Bohm effect, to the theory of weak measurement.

Stephen J. Benkovic – Pennsylvania State University, for his research contributions in the field of bio-organic chemistry which have changed our understanding of how enzymes function, and advanced the identification of targets and strategies for drug design.

Esther M. Conwell – University of Rochester, for her broad contributions to understanding electron and whole transport in semiconducting materials which helped to enable commercial applications of semiconductor and organic electronic devices and for extending her analysis to studying the electronic properties of DNA.

Marye Anne Fox – University of CA, San Diego, for her research contributions in the areas of organic photochemistry and electro chemistry and for enhancing our understanding of excited-state and charge-transfer processes within her disciplinary applications in material science, solar energy conversion and environmental chemistry.

Susan Lee Lindquist – Whitehead Institute – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for her studies of protein folding demonstrating that alternative protein confirmations and aggregations can have profound and unexpected biological influences facilitating insights in fields as wide ranging as human disease, evolution and bio materials.

Mortimer Mishkin – National Institutes of Health, for his contributions to understanding the neurobasis for perception and memory in primates. Notably the delineation of sensory neocortical processing systems especially for vision, audition and somatic sensation and the organization of memory systems in the brain.

David B. Mumford – Brown University, is a mathematician receiving the Medal for his contributions to the field of mathematics which fundamentally changed algebraic geometry and for connecting mathematics to other disciplines such as computer vision, and neurobiology.

Stanley B. Prusner – University of CA – San Francisco, for his discovery of prions, the causative agent for Bovine, Spongiform and Cephalapody and other related neurodegenerative diseases and his continuing efforts to develop effective methods for detecting and treating prion diseases.

Warren M. Washington – National Center for Atmospheric Research, for his development and use of global climate models to understand climate and explain the role of human activities and natural processes in the earth’s climate system and for his work to support a diverse science and engineering workforce.

Amnon Yariv – CA Institute of Technology, for foundational contributions to photonics and quantum electronics including the demonstration of the semiconductor distributed feedback laser that underpins today’s high speed optical fiber communications

The 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipients were:

Harry W. Coover – A Hall of Fame Inventor from Eastman Chemical Company, he received the Medal for his invention of cyanoacrylates, novel adhesives known widely to consumers as “super” glues, which today play significant roles medicine and industry.

Helen M. Free – Miles Laboratories, for her seminal contributions to diagnostic chemistry, through development of dip-and-read urinalysis which gave rise to a technological revolution in convenient, reliable point of care tests and patient’s self monitoring.

Steven J. Sasson – Eastman Kodak Company, for the invention of the digital camera, which has revolutionized the way images are captured, stored and created, creating new opportunities in commerce, education and global communication.  Ironically, out of all the good pictures Gene took for IPWatchdog, most of his pictures of Sasson were blurry and unusable.  Go figure!

Team Award: Federico Faggin, Marcian E. Hoff, Jr. and Stanley Mazor – Intel Corporation, for the conception design and application of the first microprocessor which was commercially adopted and became the universal building block of digital electronic systems significantly impacting the global economy and people’s day to day lives.

After presenting the awards President Obama wanted to make two closing points:

Number 1, I feel really smart just standing up here with these people. I think it kind of rubbed off on me. Number 2, I want to congratulate our military aide for being able to read all of those things. I want to assure you he practiced a lot. And finally let me just say once again to all of the honorees who are here tonight. You have truly revolutionized the world in ways that are profoundly important to people in their day to day lives, but also help to create those steps in human progress that really make us who we are as human beings. So we could not be prouder of you, could not be more grateful to you for your contributions. Please give them one last big round of applause.


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