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Obama to Honor Leading US Scientists, Innovators

  • George Putic

FILE - National Medals of Technology and Innovation are seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

FILE - National Medals of Technology and Innovation are seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington.

Each year, the president recognizes the achievements of the United States' leading scientists and innovators. At a Friday ceremony in the White House, President Barack Obama will present 17 U.S. scientists and engineers with National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation.

Congress established the National Medal of Science as the highest award for scientific work in 1959, and the first medal was awarded in 1962. It took another 21 years for Congress to create a parallel National Medal for Technology and Innovation and another five for its first recipients. Among them were the co-founders of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak.

All nine scientists who will receive Technology and Innovation medals this year are active or retired college professors as well as innovators.

Robert Fischell

One of them, Robert Fischell of the University of Maryland, has many innovations and patents in the field of biomedical technology. He is the principal inventor of the well-known flexible coronary stent that has helped over 20 million people around the world avoid bypass surgery.

He said he felt fortunate to be awarded the medal.

“I'm sure there are many people who aren't as lucky as I who should have gotten the award but did not," he said.

In March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to give the final approval for a newer invention, a kind of a pacemaker that can alert the heart patient of an impending heart attack.

“It actually knows you're having a heart attack before of any symptoms and it vibrates like a cellphone," Fischell said, "and then you have an external device that flashes and goes beep-beep-beep with audio and tells you, 'You must immediately get to the hospital' — where, because you have early notice virtually every time, even though you had a heart attack, your life will be saved.”

At age 86, Fischell is still working. With two of his sons, also scientists, he is developing a device that may relieve pain without any drugs. It is “a device that creates intense magnetic pulses onto a person,” which the researchers have found can erase human pain with no side effects and no need for narcotic analgesics.

Reflecting on his work as a scientist, Fischell said young people should recognize the benefits of studying science.

“The opportunity to let your life's work be helping mankind, I cannot think of a better thing to do with your life," he said. The work is "both interesting and extremely valuable, and you can never tell when a loved one might be helped by what you have worked on or invented.”

Nancy W. Ho

The only woman among the new recipients of the Medal of Technology and Innovation is Nancy W. Ho, a retired professor of chemical engineering. She is being honored for research done at Purdue University into innovative methods for producing ethanol from sources other than corn and other food plants.

Ho said scientists have long known that a type of yeast could theoretically ferment sugar found in wood, straw and other plant-based materials, turning it into ethanol. But engineering the proper kind of yeast turned out to be so difficult that many scientists gave up. Not Ho.

“Fortunately, I felt that the science should be able to solve this problem just by working hard and thinking hard. I was able to invent some new approaches and I made it work,” she said.

Even though she is retired from teaching, her work continues through her company, refining the technology and even developing ethanol-based jet fuel.

Ho said biotechnology has great potential for making the production of biofuels more efficient with use of cheaper and more abundant resources, especially in countries with cheaper labor.

“I think that gradually the prices of those products in this country will come down, too, and the new technology will take a little while for the industry to pick it up," she said. "I think that more such fuel will be produced in not-so-distant future.”

Asked about being the only woman among recipients of the Medal of Technology and Innovation, Ho said, “The society is just slowly getting used to it that women can do everything in science and technology as men. But that is progress. That is something we cannot dictate or be mad about.”