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NSB, NSF Recognize Extraordinary Science, Service With Annual Awards

May 9, 2010

Vannevar Bush Award, Waterman Award and Public Service Awards made as National Science Foundation and National Science Board celebrate 60th anniversary

President Barack Obama sent warm greetings to top scientists, engineers and policy makers who gathered on May 5th at the annual awards dinner of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science Board (NSB) to pay tribute to the achievements and public service contributions of outstanding scientists, and to recognize a program that inspires and engages young girls to enter the fields of science and engineering.

After welcoming remarks, NSB Chairman Steven Beering invited to the podium John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and science advisor to the President, who extended his own wishes for the NSF and NSB on their sixtieth anniversary. He noted that earlier in the day, the House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored by Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon and Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall, paying tribute to the NSF and NSB on this historic occasion.

Holdren then shared with the 250-member audience a letter from President Obama in which he acknowledged the important contributions of the evening’s hosts.

“Since their creation in 1950, NSF and NSB have provided invaluable service to our nation by supporting world-class scientific research and providing impartial advice to Presidents and Congress,” the President said. “From bolstering our national security to supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in our schools, they have upheld NSF’s founding mission to promote American innovation and drive our economic progress.”

Promoting STEM education was a theme echoed throughout the evening, beginning with the presentation of the NSB’s Vannevar Bush Award to Bruce Alberts “for his dedication to the creativity, openness and tolerance that define science; passion for improving the human condition; and transformational and inspirational leadership in science education, international capacity building, and the tireless pursuit of a ‘scientific temperament’ for the world.”

Alberts spoke appreciatively and fondly of his first NSF grant in the amount of $2,400 received in 1967, which began his career. Today a prominent biochemist and editor-in-chief of Science, he outlined his active commitment to dual passions: the improvement of science and mathematics education, and science diplomacy. In just three days, Alberts, a United States Science Envoy, will travel to Indonesia.

NSF Director Arden L. Bement presented the highest honor conferred by the NSF, the Alan T. Waterman Award, to Subhash Khot, an associate professor in the computer science department at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Bement referenced great thinkers in praising the young Khot.

“Einstein once said that ‘Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.’ If we accept that to be true–and who are we to argue?–then it can be truly said that Dr. Khot is not only a mathematician, but a poet of the first order,” said Bement. “Aristotle himself observed that, ‘the mathematical sciences particularly exhibit order, symmetry and limitation; and these are the greatest forms of the beautiful.’ And so it is entirely fitting that, in nominating Dr. Khot for this prestigious award, someone remarked, ‘His work is beautiful technically, as well as producing beautiful results.’”

In accepting this award, Khot, a theoretical computer scientist who works in an area called “computational complexity,” spoke of his origins in a remote town in India, and put his work in a practical context, describing his development of algorithms that optimize the efficiency of such modern-day conveniences as online driving directions.

NSB’s Honorary Awards Chairman Ray Bowen then presented the NSB’s Public Service Awards, which are given each year to an individual and to an organization.  Nalini Nadkarni, a pioneer in forest ecology studies and public outreach and a faculty member at Evergreen State College, was honored “for her groundbreaking research in forest canopy science, and for her outstanding and unique achievements in public service in science through forging connections with the general public and involving non-traditional audiences in her scientific research. Nadkarni who explores the nexus of science and art, drawing on rappers, poets and other performers for creative communication, compared receiving this award to a “still point”–when dancers momentarily stop movement to assess where they’ve been and where they’re going. She vowed to continue the work about which she’s been passionate since receiving her first NSF grant in 1984.

The Expanding Your Horizons Network was then honored “for its decades-long commitment to the early development of interest in mathematics and science among young women, making significant strides toward its goal to develop a pool of qualified women to undertake careers in mathematics, science and engineering.” Rachel Sheinbein, president of this grassroots organization led by STEM professionals, accepted the award on behalf of EYH and the 800,000 girls whom it has served since its founding in 1974.

NSF and the NSB encourage nominations for its 2011 awards. Additional information is available at the “Related Websites” listed below.

Image Caption: Honored at the NSF/NSB 2010 Awards Dinner were (from left to right) Nalini Nadkarni, NSB Public Service Awardee; Rachel Sheinbein, president, the Expanding Your Horizons Network (EYH), NSB Public Service Awardee; NSB Chairman Steven Beering; NSF Director Arden L. Bement; EYH Executive Director Stacey Roberts-Ohr; Subhash Khot, NSF Waterman Awardee. Credit: Sandy Schaeffer for NSF

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