President Barack Obama
May 19, 2016, 2:44 p.m.
East Room, The White House
Thank you so much. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Please have a seat. Welcome to the White House. Today, I have the privilege to present our nation’s highest honor for scientific and technological achievement –- the National Medals of Science, and the National Medals of Technology and Innovation.
The amount of brainpower in this room right now is astonishing. (Laughter.) But when you talk to these brilliant men and women, it’s clear the honor has not yet gone to their heads. They still put their lab coats [on] one arm at a time. (Laughter.)
Joining us to celebrate these achievements are members of Congress; Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz -- a pretty good scientist himself -- my Science Advisor, John Holdren; the Director of the National Science Foundation, France Còrdova; the Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Michelle Lee; and Jim Rathmann from the National Medals of Science and Technology Foundation. I want to thank them for all the work that they do each year to help us organize and honor the scientists and innovators in this great nation of ours.
Now, we are engaging in a lot of science and tinkering here at the White House. We’ve got Astronomy Night. We got Hack-a-thons. We got Code-a-thons. We have Science Fairs, Maker Faires. It is fun. I love this stuff. I get to test out some of the cool stuff that ends up here in the White House. At this year’s Science Fair, one nine-year-old, named Jacob Leggette, turned the tables on me and suggested that we needed to start a kids’ advisory group -- (laughter) -- so that young people can help us understand what’s interesting to them when it comes to STEM education, which I thought was a pretty good idea. (Laughter.)
So, today, I can announce that we are launching a “Kid Science Advisors” campaign for young scientists and innovators to send in their suggestions for what we should be doing to support science and technology, and inspire the next generation of scientists and innovators. So those young people out there who are listening, go to our website -- we’re going to be looking for some advisors, some advice. (Laughter.)
The real reason we do this, as I’ve said before, is to teach our young people that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament that deserves a celebration; that 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 as well. 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.
That’s what the honorees who are here today represent. Many of them came from humble or ordinary beginnings, but along the way, someone or something sparked their curiosity. Someone bought them their first computer. Someone introduced them to a lab. A child in their lives needed specialized medical help. And because they lived in an America that fosters curiosity, and invests in education, and values science as important to our progress, they were able to find their calling and do extraordinary things. So there are few better examples for our young people to follow than the Americans that we honor today.
Just to take a couple of examples: Shirley Ann Jackson, who is part of my science advisory group, grew up right here in Washington, D.C. Hers was a quiet childhood. Her first homemade experiment involved, I understand, collecting and cataloging bumblebees in her backyard. (Laughter.) Two events happened that would not only change our country’s course, but Shirley’s. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal, and the Soviets launched Sputnik up in the sky, sparking a space race. As Shirley put it, “Those two events in history changed my life for good.”
She went on to become the first African American to earn a doctorate in physics from MIT, the second woman to do so anywhere in America. And over the years, Dr. Jackson has revolutionized the way science informs public policy from rethinking safety at our nuclear plants to training a new generation of scientists and engineers that looks more like the diverse and inclusive America she loves.
Then you have Mark Humayan, who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was nine years old. When his diabetic grandmother lost her vision, he began studying to become an ophthalmologist, hoping he could save the sight of others. Mark helped create the “Argus II,” a “bionic eye” that has restored vision to patients who’ve been blind for up to 50 years. He says the moment when he witnessed someone seeing light and shapes, someone experiencing the miracle of sight for the first time in decades -- those moments have been some of the happiest and most rewarding of his professional career. In his words -- and I think no pun is intended -- “There wasn’t a dry eye in the operating room.” (Laughter.)
Growing up in Chicago, Mary-Claire King’s dad would sit with her in front of the TV for Cubs and White Sox games -- (laughter) -- and make up story problems for her to solve about the players on the field. She just thought that’s how everyone watched baseball -- which explains why, when a college advisor encouraged her to take a genetics course, she said, “I couldn’t believe anything could be so fun.”
But every single American should be grateful for Mary-Claire King’s path. We’re glad that she thought it was fun because. at a time when most scientists believed that cancer was caused by viruses, she relentlessly pursued her hunch that certain cancers were linked to inherited genetic mutations. This self-described “stubborn” scientist kept going until she proved herself right. Seventeen years of work later, Mary-Claire discovered a single gene that predisposes women to breast cancer. And that discovery has empowered women and their doctors with science to better understand the choices that they make when it comes to their health and their future.
So these are just three examples of the remarkable stories that are represented here today. They illustrate why this is such an extraordinary moment to be a scientist in this country. America’s progress in science and technology has countless revolutionary discoveries within our reach. New materials designed atom by atom. New forms of clean energy. New breakthroughs in treating cancer and ending the wait for organ transplants. Private space flights, a planned human mission to Mars, a NASA probe that broke free from the Solar System three years ago and just kept on going. That’s some of what America can do.
That’s why we’re constantly pushing Congress to fund the work of our scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and dreamers to keep America on the cutting-edge.
As President, I’m proud to honor each of you for your contributions to our nations. As an American, I’m proud of everything that you’ve done to contribute to that fearless spirit of innovation that’s made us who we are, and that doesn’t just benefit our citizens but benefits the world. We’re very proud of what you’ve done. So congratulations to all of you.
With that, let’s read the citations and present the awards. (Applause.)
MILITARY AIDE: National Medals of Science.
Armand Paul Alivisatos. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Armand Paul Alivisatos, University of California, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, California. 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. (Applause.)
Michael Artin. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Michael Artin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts. For his leadership in modern algebraic geometry, including three major bodies of work: Étale cohomology, algebraic approximation of formal solutions of equations, and non-commutative algebraic geometry. (Applause.)
Albert Bandura. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Albert Bandura, Stanford University, California. For fundamental advances in the understanding of social learning mechanisms and self-referent thinking processes in motivation and behavior change, and for the development of social cognitive theory of human action and psychological development. (Applause.)
Stanley Falkow. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Stanley Falkow, Stanford University School of Medicine, California. For his monumental contributions toward understanding how microbes cause disease and resist the effects of antibiotics, and for his inspiring mentorship that create the field of molecular microbial pathogenesis. (Applause.)
Shirley Ann Jackson. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York. 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. (Applause.)
Rakesh K. Jain. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Rakesh K. Jain, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts. For pioneering research at the interface of engineering and oncology, including tumor microenvironment, drug delivery and imaging, and for groundbreaking discoveries of principles leading to the development and novel use of drugs for treatment of cancer and non-cancerous diseases. (Applause.)
Mary-Claire King. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Mary-Claire King, University of Washington, Washington. For pioneering contributions to human genetics, including discovery of the BRCA1 susceptibility gene for breast cancer; and for development of genetic methods to match “disappeared” victims of human rights abuses with their families. (Applause.)
Simon Asher Levin. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Simon Asher Levin, Princeton, New Jersey. 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. (Applause.)
Geraldine Richmond. (Applause.) National Medal of Science to Geraldine Richmond, University of Oregon, 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 technological processes; and for her extraordinary efforts in the United States and around the globe to promote women in science. (Applause.)
National Medals of Technology and Innovation.
Joseph N. DeSimone. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Joseph N. DeSimone, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and Carbon 3D, California. For pioneering innovations in material science that led to the development of technologies in diverse fields from manufacturing to medicine, and for innovative and inclusive leadership in higher education and entrepreneurship. (Applause.)
Robert E. Fischell. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Robert E. Fischell, University of Maryland at College Park, Maryland. For invention of novel medical devices used in the treatment of many illnesses thereby improving the health and saving the lives of millions of patients around the world. (Applause.)
Arthur Gossard. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Arthur Gossard, University of California, Santa Barbara, California. For innovation, development, and application of artificially structured quantum materials critical to ultrahigh performance semiconductor device technology used in today’s digital infrastructure. (Applause.)
Nancy Ho. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Nancy Ho, Green Tech America, Incorporated and Purdue University, Indiana. For the development of a yeast-based technology that is able to co-ferment sugars extracted from plants to produce ethanol, and for optimizing this technology for large-scale and cost-effective production of renewable biofuels and industrial chemicals. (Applause.)
Chenming Hu. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Chenming Hu, University of California, Berkeley, California. For pioneering innovations in microelectronics including reliability technologies, the first industry-standard model for circuit design, and the first 3-dimensional transistors, which radically advanced semiconductor technology. (Applause.)
Mark Humayun. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Mark Humayun, University of Southern California, California. For the invention, development, and application of bioelectronics in medicine, including a retinal prosthesis for restoring vision to the blind, thereby significantly improving patients’ quality of life. (Applause.)
Cato T. Laurencin. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Cato T. Laurencin, University of Connecticut, Connecticut. For seminal work in the engineering of musculoskeletal tissues, especially for revolutionizing achievements in the design of bone matrices and ligament regeneration; and for extraordinary work in promoting diversity and excellence in science. (Applause.)
Jonathan Marc Rothberg. (Applause.) National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Jonathan Marc Rothberg, 4catalyzer Corporation and Yale School of Medicine, Connecticut. For pioneering inventions and commercialization of next generation DNA sequencing technologies, making access to genomic information easier, faster, and more cost-effective for researchers around the world. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Let’s give another big round of applause to our honorees. (Applause.) Yay! Very proud of you. (Applause.)
And let’s give a big round of applause to my military aide, who had to read those citations -- (laughter) -- with a lot of pretty complicated phrases in them. (Applause.) You were practicing, weren’t you? (Laughter.) Well, it just goes to show we can all learn science. (Laughter.) Science rocks. (Applause.)
Thank you very much, everybody. Please enjoy the reception. Congratulations to our honorees. Have a wonderful afternoon. Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)