The National Medal of Science is the highest award a scientist can receive from the United States government. It has been handed out by the president every year since 1963, and more than 400 of America's leading scientists have received this honor meant to recognize individuals "deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences." In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded the National Medal of Science to seven outstanding researchers and thinkers. Five of those winners are members of AAAS. Learn more about each winner and what this award means to them.
AAAS Fellow Dr. Jacqueline K. Barton is the Arthur and Marian Hanisch Memorial Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology. She has spent much of her career studying DNA and its interactions with electrons. She pioneered the work in electron transfer along double helix DNA, ultimately using her findings to look at damaged DNA and DNA ordering. These findings may someday lead to new cancer treatments and other medical breakthroughs.
She was the only female winner this year, about which she says: "we are moving slowly but persistently in the right direction, but we will know we have gotten there when no one notices when there are many women on the podium!"
Ralph L. Brinster is a fellow of AAAS and the Richard King Mellon Professor of Reproductive Physiology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also received his V.M.D. and Ph.D. He is recognized as a major contributor to the field of transgenetics, or introducing new DNA into an animal's offspring to study the development of diseases and how DNA functions in the body. His contributions to genetic modifications in germ cells have led to major revelations in the fields of genetics, medicine, evolution, and biology. He is the first veterinarian to be awarded the National Medal of Science.
"I think that the important thing to remember about awards is that the award really recognizes the advancement of science, and that happens to be associated with my name right now. But I'll be gone. And the recognition of the importance of the science is really critically important because it establishes these mileposts along the way of our greater understanding of our environment and life around us"
AAAS member Shu Chien is the director of the Institute of Engineering in Medicine and a professor of Bioengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego. He was raised in China, but he immigrated to the United States after completing his medical training in Taiwan. He combines engineering and biomedical training to learn more about the circulatory system. His research has led to many new treatments of blood diseases. He says the day he received his award was the most important day in his life besides his wedding day, and is especially thankful to have received education in so many places.
"I have been benefited immensely by the combination of the cultures of the East and West in my work, in my relations with people, and in my family. I often tell my students the importance of seven C's in career development, i.e., compassion, commitment, comprehension, creativity, cooperation, communication, and consummation."
Peter Stang is a fellow of AAAS, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society and a distinguished professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Utah. As a child he had his own chemistry set, which spurred his dreams before his family fled the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 to come to the United States. Today his primary research is in the new field of supermolecular chemistry, which deals with the organization of large molecules. These molecules organize themselves into geometric shapes using weak interactions, as opposed to covalent bonds. This work could eventually lead to new ways of storing information and new drug delivery techniques.
About receiving the award, he says, "It humbled, honored, and delighted me. Particularly since it recognized the work of my 100+ coworkers, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate researchers over the years."
Richard Tapia is a professor of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University in Texas. The work of this AAAS member has led to many new algorithms for computers to do things like schedule deliveries, design drug treatments, or control chemical plants. He became interested in mathematics after he and his twin brother got involved with building racecars as teenagers. Inspired by his Hispanic heritage, he has always been an advocate for minority education and spreading the idea that "excellence comes in many colors."
His parents emigrated separately from Mexico to the United States as children, but were unable to fulfill their dreams of education because of financial needs. But, says Tapia, "their education dreams came true through their children. There are five of us, and four of us have graduate degrees. My parents made us believe that anything was possible through education and that we could do it, 'si se puede.'"