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Obama Honors Top US Scientists & Innovators

President Obama Awards National Medal of Science to Dr. Geraldine Richmond (A. Pande/VOA)

For Pakistani-American Mark Humayun, his grandmother who went blind from diabetes inspired him to develop a computer chip that goes into the eye to restore sight - otherwise known as the "bionic eye."

"I am happy to report that that is an approved product in the U.S. and Europe in helping many people worldwide," the ophthalmologic surgeon told reporters at the White House Thursday.

For scientist Jonathan Rothberg, it was his newborn son who was rushed to the hospital with breathing problems nearly two decades ago that led him to become a pioneer in genetic sequencing technology.

"I am gratified today because not only did the president say my family was beautiful, but my (now) 16-year-old son had a smile on his face," Rothberg said.

Seventeen recipients of National Medals of Science & National Medals of Technology & Innovation speak to reporters at White House. (A. Pande/VOA)
Seventeen recipients of National Medals of Science & National Medals of Technology & Innovation speak to reporters at White House. (A. Pande/VOA)

The two are among 17 recipients of this year’s National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation, awarded annually for outstanding contributions to science and engineering.

"The amount of brain power in this room right now is astonishing," President Barack Obama said Thursday as he presented each of the men and women with their medals in the East Room of the White House.

Obama said bestowing the honor is particularly significant in inspiring the next generations to enter science and technology.

"We want those who have invented the products and lifesaving medicines and are engineering our future to be celebrated," Obama noted. "Immersing young people in science math engineering - that’s what’s going to carry the American spirit of innovation through the 21st century and beyond."

The president noted that many of the recipients came from humble or ordinary beginnings, but were inspired by something or someone along their life’s journey.

"Because they lived in an America that fosters curiosity and invests in education and values science as important to our progress, they were able to find their calling and do extraordinary things," Obama said.

Young science advisors

During the ceremony, the president announced the launch of a kids science advisers campaign aimed at soliciting ideas from young people on shaping the future of science and technology in the United States.

The cause is an important one for National Medal of Science recipient Shirley Ann Jackson.

The Washington D.C. native is the first African American to earn a doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the second woman to do so in the United States.

Standing alongside her fellow honorees after the ceremony, Jackson outlined the reasons young people should go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), including the ability to make a positive impact on humanity.

"It is important to inspire and encourage and invite young people early. Because the people here who are being recognized have worked over decades, and they started early, but, with that, the sky’s the limit."

National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient Chenming Hu, a pioneer in semiconductor technology for developing the first three-dimensional transistors, offered this encouragement to kids who might be discouraged by math.