Emily Hall for NSTMF

NSTMF Gala Continues Tradition of Trailblazing Innovation, Celebration

A look into NSTMF's National Medals Celebration in honor of the NMS and NMTI Laureates

It’s not often that more than a dozen of the world’s brightest minds are in one room at the same time. It’s even less common for those individuals to converge at the White House.

“The amount of brainpower in this room right now is astonishing,” said President Barack Obama last week during a ceremony honoring the latest recipients of the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

“Many of them came from humble or ordinary beginnings, but along the way, someone or something sparked their curiosity,” Obama added. “There are few better examples for our young people to follow than the Americans we honor today.”

The work of the 17 scientists, researchers, and technological innovators bestowed with the nation’s highest honor for scientific and technological achievement have each made contributions to the world of science and research that have had far-reaching impacts. In many cases, their work has touched –– and saved –– the lives of millions of people across the globe.

Obama specifically cited the work of several laureates whose work has completely changed the way some people live.

Mark Humayan, a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, created a bionic eye dubbed the “Argus II,” which has restored vision for patients who were previously blind. Humayan was inspired to help those who have lost their vision after his grandmother lost her sight.

Obama also applauded Shirley Ann Jackson, who pursued her childhood curiosity for science throughout her life, and became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. –– in any field –– from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has worked to make the next generation of STEM professionals more diverse and inclusive.

Dr. Jackson receiving the National Medal of Science from President Obama on May 19, 2016

And “every single American,” Obama said, should be grateful for the work of Mary-Claire King, a recipient of the National Medal of Science who discovered a single gene, BRCA1, that predisposes women to breast cancer.  

“They illustrate why this is such an extraordinary moment to be a scientist in this country,” Obama said of the laureates. “As president, I’m proud to honor each of you for your contributions to our [nation]. As an American, I’m proud of everything that you’ve done to contribute to that fearless spirit of innovation that’s made us who we are, and that doesn’t just benefit our citizens, but benefits the world.”

For many years, however, the celebration of these revolutionary scientists and innovators did not go beyond the White House ceremony honoring their work.

“I can’t tell you how important it is to make it more and more visible to the public that we owe so much to the scientists and engineers who create and invent new capabilities, or discover new functionality,” says Vinton Cerf, a 1997 recipient of the National Medal of Technology, and treasurer of the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation (NSTMF) Board.

“The general public appreciates the technology that drives the devices that they buy, but they don’t fully appreciate the link between basic science research, applied research, and products.”

George Rathmann, founder of the NSTMF, recognized the gap between the significance of the National Medals being awarded by the White House, and the seemingly lackluster accompanying celebration. Unlike other awards of similar stature –– such as the Nobel Prize –– there is no anticipatory schedule to follow, and no monetary award associated with these accolades –– although current NSTMF Chairman James Rathmann (George Rathmann’s son) says he hopes to make that happen in the future. For the first several decades of the awards’ existence, the festivities ended once the president placed the medal around each laureate’s neck.

“It just seemed like these people deserved more than that,” James Rathmann says of his father’s decision to form the NSTMF. “It’s hard to ignore the impact of the contributions of these people to both economics and the quality of life. What we do, how we live every day, the various things people have done, it’s just profound.”

Not long after the NSTMF was established in 1991, it began hosting a gala for the laureates each year, which has now grown into a black tie affair where family, friends, and colleagues of the laureates can celebrate their work, and be scientific celebrities in the nation’s capital for a night.

During the gala, each of the laureates is recognized by name, and is featured in a short video that explains the significance of their contributions. The laureates this year were also recognized by France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation; Michelle Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office; and Jo Handelsman, Associate Director of Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The Honorable Jo Handelsman addressing the guests of the NSTMF's National Medals Gala

But another goal of the foundation, according to James Rathmann, has also been to move beyond just hosting a party each year. And in the last five years particularly, Rathmann says the foundation has been able to commemorate the laureates’ work in perpetuity, through a “national museum” –– its website.

“That’s really not done, and it certainly has never been done with this collection of people who have done staggering amounts for our country, from saving soldiers’ lives with the invention of kevlar, to keeping glass from shattering when you pour hot water on it with the invention of Pyrex,” he says. “It’s those things that you now can capture and deliver them to people’s homes.”

But the website is more than just a testament to the work that the laureates have done over the last several decades, according to Andy Rathmann-Noonan, executive director of the NSTMF.

Dr. Richmond being celebrated at the National Medals Gala on May 19th, 2016

“We believe as a foundation that the laureates have even more to offer than just their contributions,” he says. “There’s something to be said for the laureates’ lives, narratives that can give them an entirely new dimension, that makes them far more approachable, and far more understandable. If we can make a strong personal connection between members of the general public and these laureates, we’re actually providing an environment where younger generations can be inspired by the work they’ve done.”

Geraldine Richmond, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, says the increasingly public nature of the event makes the award a higher honor not just for the laureates, but for the community of friends, family, and colleagues who supported them along the way.

“To have it be so public, it’s really public recognition for all the work they put into it, too,” she says. “And that’s why having it be so public is so wonderful, because otherwise it just kind of goes in your office, and not a lot of people know how much it means.”

Cato Laurencin, for example, said receiving the award and attending the gala was particularly important to him because several of his patients were in attendance. Laurencin, a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, is paving the way in regenerative engineering, combining several different areas of science and engineering to create three-dimensional matrices that guide the regeneration of tissues.

Raising awareness about the award can also help inspire younger generations of scientists, Richmond says.

“I think it’s a really good start in trying to ... make the public more aware of how wonderful it can be to do science, and how rewarding it can be, and that it’s really an external kind of effort –– it’s not just you staring down at your lab bench,” she says. “It’s really a big world, and to me that’s what I think young people need to understand is it can be a catalyst for doing so many different things.”