President Barack Obama met Thursday, March 28, in the Oval Office with the six U.S. recipients of the 2012 Kavli Prizes — including MIT’s Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Ann M. Graybiel and Jane X. Luu. Obama and his science and technology advisor, John P. Holdren, received the scientists to recognize their landmark contributions in nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics, respectively.
“American scientists, engineers and innovators strengthen our nation every day and in countless ways, but the all-stars honored by the Kavli Foundation deserve special praise for the scale of their advances in some of the most important and exciting research disciplines today,” said Holdren, who also serves as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “I am grateful not only for their profound accomplishments, but for the inspiration they are providing to a new generation of doers, makers and discoverers.”
The researchers received their Kavli Prizes for making fundamental contributions to our understanding of the outer solar system; of the differences in material properties at nano- and larger scales; and of how the brain receives and responds to sensations such as sight, sound and touch.
The 2012 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics was awarded to Luu, David C. Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles, and Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members, work that led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our planetary system. The Kuiper Belt lies beyond the orbit of Neptune and is a disk of more than 70,000 small bodies made of rock and ice, and orbiting the sun. Jewitt and Luu discovered the Kuiper Belt, and Brown discovered and characterized many of its largest members.
The 2012 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience was awarded to Dresselhaus for her work explaining why the properties of materials structured at the nanoscale can vary so much from those of the same materials at larger dimensions. Her early work provided the foundation for later discoveries concerning the famous C60 buckyball, carbon nanotubes and graphene. Dresselhaus received the Kavli Prize for her research into uniform oscillations of elastic arrangements of atoms or molecules called phonons; phonon-electron interactions; and heat conductivity in nanostructures.
The 2012 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience was awarded to Graybiel, Cornelia Isabella Bargmann of Rockefeller University, and Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, who have pioneered the study of how sensory signals pass from the point of sensation — whether the eye, the foot or the nose — to the brain, and how decisions are made to respond. Each working on different parts of the brain, and using different techniques and models, they have combined precise neuroanatomy with sophisticated functional studies to gain understanding of their chosen systems.