President Obama has named three local professors — a biological oceanographer, a mathematician, and a biomedical engineer — as recipients of top national scientific awards.
Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and Sallie Chisholm, also of MIT, and Barry Mazur of Harvard University will be honored with the National Medal of Science in a ceremony at the White House early this year.
Twelve researchers will receive the National Medal of Science and 11 inventors will be awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” Obama said in a statement. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great — and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”
This is not the first time that Langer has received one of the awards. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science.
“It’s not a usual occurrence,” Langer said of winning both awards. “I’m very, very honored.”
Langer has published about 1,200 research papers and holds more than 800 scientific patents, according to MIT.
His research has resulted in the development of polymer-based drug delivery systems, which enable drugs to be continuously released in the body over a prolonged period.
Langer’s research led to the first FDA-approved treatment for brain cancer in 20 years, in which chemotherapy is directly administered to the tumor, Langer said. His scientific discoveries have also formed the basis for creating artificial skin for burn victims.
Langer, 64, is one of the few people — and the youngest, at age 43 — elected to all three US National Academies, according to MIT.
In 1988, Chisholm was part of a team that uncovered the smallest and most plentiful photosynthetic organism, called ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus, according to MIT. These plankton can produce up to half the oxygen in some parts of the ocean.
“Sallie ‘Penny’ Chisholm is a distinguished biological oceanographer whose studies of the dominant photosynthetic organisms in the sea have revolutionized our understanding of life in the world’s oceans,” MIT said in a statement.
Chisholm, 65, said it is unusual for oceanographers to receive the award. She said she felt humbled when reading the list of scientists and innovators being honored.
“It’s humbling, but very exciting,” said Chisholm.
She has received numerous awards, including the Ruth Patrick Award from the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography and the Darbaker Prize from the Botanical Society of America.
Mazur, who is 75, said he had no idea he was in the running for the National Medal of Science until he was contacted by the White House by e-mail. Although Mazur said he was confused at first, he said he was overjoyed when he found out that he had been chosen for the medal.
“Thrilled, I was absolutely thrilled,” he said.
Mazur said he started his career as a topologist, studying the structure of space. He transitioned to studying the theoretical side of number theory, a subject he has researched for nearly 50 years.
Mazur said his love of mathematics began at the age of 10, when he was curious about radio waves. He thought that learning about math would help him to better understand the link between his radio station’s transmitter and the home radio receiver.
He has received a number of awards, including the Veblen Prize and Cole Prize from the American Mathematical Society and the Chauvenet Prize from the Mathematical Association of America, according to Harvard.
Langer said he is looking forward to the ceremony and the opportunity to talk with Obama, whom he met at Northwestern University’s commencement exercises in 2006.
The president later wrote about his interaction with Langer in his book “The Audacity of Hope,” writing that “Langer isn’t just an ivory tower academic.”
Although Langer has received more than 200 major national and international awards, he said his mission in life is to make discoveries that will help people.
“Things that make people live happier, healthier lives,” he said. “[That’s] the thrust of what we’ve done.”
Katherine Landergan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.