“This is the most collection of brainpower we’ve had under this roof in a long time,” Obama said to laughter from the honorees and guests in the East Room, “maybe since the last time we gave out these medals.”
Each researcher received either the National Medal of Science or the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, called the nation’s highest honor for research and discovery.
“In America, success does not depend on where you were born or what your last name is,” Obama said. “Success depends on the ideas that you can dream up; the blood, sweat and tears you’re willing to put in to make them real.”
The president didn’t only highlight such discoveries as photosynthetic organisms in the ocean or the far UV electrographic camera, he also pushed his proposals to increase federal spending for teaching and education.
“Right now, only about a third of undergraduate students are graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math,” he said. “That’s why we’ve worked to make more affordable college opportunities, and set a goal of training 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade.”
Obama also used the awards ceremony to promote his proposals for new immigration policies.
“One important piece of that reform is allowing more of the brightest minds from around the world to start businesses and initiate new discoveries,” he said. “We need to do something about all the students who come here from around the world to study, but then we send them home once they graduate.”
Among the honorees:
– Frederick Hawthorne from the University of Missouri. The director of the International Institute of Nano and Molecular Medicine has discovered the use of boron to fight cancer. Doctors will be able to label cancer cells with the chemical element and bombard them with neurons. The chemistry also may be useful elsewhere in the field of medicine and in everyday chemistry.
– Allen Bard and John Goodenough from the University of Texas at Austin. Bard, the director of the Center for Electrochemistry, has worked on developing the scanning electrochemical microscope. The tool can be used to identify new materials for technologies such as solar cells and batteries. Goodenough, a professor at the school of engineering, had worked on developing the rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
“Thanks to the sacrifices they’ve made, the chances they’ve taken, the gallons of coffee they’ve consumed, we now have batteries that power everything from cellphones to electric cars,” Obama said.
– Leroy Hood, the president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. After Hood developed the automated DNA sequencer, the Human Genome Project was able to identify the 25,000 genes in human DNA. Before he started at his own institute, Hood created the University of Washington’s Department of Molecular Biotechnology with the help of a $12 million grant from Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
The National Medal of Science was created in 1959. Nominees are selected by a committee of presidential appointees. The National Medal of Technology and Innovation was created in 1980. An independent committee from the public and private sector chooses the candidates.