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President Obama Awards National Medals of Science to America’s Best and Brightest Scientific Minds

November 25, 2010

Obama calls celebrating their contributions “one of the most important ways to restore science to its rightful place”

On November 17th, President Obama presented 10 researchers with the highest technical and scientific award given by the United States, the the National Medal of Science.

“The achievements of these men and women stand as testament to their ingenuity, to their zeal for discovery and for their willingness to give of themselves and to sacrifice in order to expand the reach of human understanding,” the President said at a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday evening. “The scientists and innovators here have saved lives, improved our health and well being, helped unleash whole new industries and millions of jobs, transformed the way we work, learn and communicate … their contributions serve as proof not only to their creativity and skill, but to the promise of science itself.”

The National Medal of Science was created by statute in 1959, and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Awarded annually, the medal recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. Nominees are selected by a committee of presidential appointees based on their advanced knowledge in, and contributions to, the biological, behavioral/social and physical sciences, as well as chemistry, engineering, computing and mathematics.

NSF Director Subra Suresh addressed the laureates at a black tie awards dinner that followed the formal ceremony at the White House. “Tonight we acknowledge not only the heritage that you received and have carried on, but even more so, we celebrate the legacy that you bestow to coming generations of explorers, discoverers, inventors, and innovators,” said Suresh. “You feed our anticipation of continued contributions and leadership. And, we look forward to the future flowering of science and innovation in your hands and in the hearts and minds of those you mentor and train … To put the minds and the hands of humanity to work in creating a better world for all.”

On its 51st anniversary, this year’s National Medal of Science recipients are:

Yakir Aharonov, Chapman University, for his work in quantum physics, which ranges from the Aharonov-Bohm effect, to the notion of weak measurement, making him one of the most influential figures in modern physics.

Stephen Benkovic, Pennsylvania State University, for his seminal research that has changed our understanding of how enzymes function, singly or in complexes, and has led to novel pharmaceuticals and biocatalysts.

Esther Conwell, University of Rochester, for promoting women in science, and for contributions to understanding electron and whole transport in semiconducting materials that has helped to enable integrated circuits and organic electronic devices.

Marye Anne Fox, University of California, San Diego, for seminal contributions to chemistry by elucidating the role that non-homogeneous environments can exert on excited-state processes, and enhancing our understanding of charge-transfer reactions and their application to such fields as polymers, solar energy conversion and nanotechnology.

Susan Lindquist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for showing that changes in protein folding can have profound and unexpected influences in fields as wide-ranging as human disease, evolution and nanotechnology, and for providing fundamental experimental support for the prion hypothesis. The prion hypothesis is a key scientific assertion associated with a group of progressive conditions that affect the brain and nervous system of many animals, including humans.

Mortimer Mishkin, National Institutes of Health, for fundamental contributions to understanding the functional organization of the primate brain, including the discovery of the role of the inferior temporal cortex in vision, delineation of the selective contributions of medial temporal lobe structures to memory, and discovery of the neural bases of cognitive and noncognitive memory systems.

David Mumford, Brown University, for extraordinary contributions to the mathematical, engineering and neurobiological sciences.

Stanley Prusiner, University of California, San Francisco, for his discovery of prions representing an unprecedented class of infectious agents comprised only of proteins, which elucidated a novel paradigm of disease in which a single pathogenic process produces infectious, inherited or sporadic illnesses in humans and animals.

Warren Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research, for his fundamental contributions to the understanding of Earth’s coupled climate system through numerical simulation, leadership in U.S. science policy, and inspiring mentorship of young people of all backgrounds and origins.

Amnon Yariv, California Institute of Technology, for scientific and engineering contributions to photonics and quantum electronics that have profoundly impacted lightwave communications and the field of optics as a whole.

Image Caption: NSF Deputy Director and Director bookend National Medal of Science laureates at the celebratory black tie dinner that followed the White House ceremony. From left to right, NSF Deputy Director Cora Marrett, Amnon Yariv, Warren Washington (former Chairman of the National Science Board), Stanley Prusiner, David Mumford, Mortimer Mishkin, Susan Lindquist, Marye Anne Fox, Esther Conwell, Stephen Benkovic, Yakir Aharonov and NSF Director Subra Suresh. Credit: Sandy Shaeffer for the National Science Foundation

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