President Barack Obama on Friday named Susan Lindquist, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and an MIT biology professor, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor.
Lindquist was cited “for her studies of protein folding, demonstrating that alternative protein conformations and aggregations can have profound and unexpected biological influences, facilitating insights in fields as wide-ranging as human disease, evolution, and biomaterials.”
The National Medal of Science, which is awarded annually, was established by Congress in 1959 as a presidential award honoring those who have made “outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.”
In announcing this year’s 10 medalists, Obama stated, “The extraordinary accomplishments of these scientists, engineers, and inventors are a testament to American industry and ingenuity. Their achievements have redrawn the frontiers of human knowledge while enhancing American prosperity, and it is my tremendous pleasure to honor them for their important contributions.”
Lindquist, whose primary affiliation is with the Whitehead Institute, where her laboratory is located and all her research is conducted, said she reacted with “stunned surprise” upon learning of the honor.
“I’m just absolutely thrilled,” she said. “When I started out in science, I thought having a bench in the corner of someone’s lab would be about the best I could hope for. It never occurred to me that I could have my own lab, let alone achieve an honor like this.”
Lindquist, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, credited her family — and her husband, Edward Buckbee, in particular — for supporting her remarkably successful career. She said Edward and daughters Eleanora, 23, and Alana, 21, couldn’t be more delighted.
“They’re just so proud and excited and sweet about all this,” she said, adding that her daughters can’t wait to visit the White House to watch their mother receive the medal. Long an advocate for women in science, Lindquist said she hopes this latest achievement will further demonstrate that it is possible to succeed in a scientific career while balancing a family life that includes children.
Whitehead Institute Director David Page applauded Lindquist for scientific leadership that has had significant impact locally, nationally and internationally.
“I couldn’t be more excited for Susan over this recognition of her incredible scientific imagination and creativity,” Page said. “It’s also very exciting for me that Susan is such an integral part of the scientific mix here at Whitehead Institute. The energy she brings to her lab’s pursuits permeates the Institute as a whole, and the place is so much richer because of it.”
Lindquist earned her PhD in biology from Harvard University in 1976 and joined the biology faculty at the University of Chicago in 1978. She left Chicago in 2001 to become director of the Whitehead Institute, a position she held until 2004. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997, the National Academy of Sciences in 1997 and the Institute of Medicine in 2006.
She is expected to receive the medal from President Obama at a White House ceremony on Nov. 17. Lindquist is the Whitehead Institute’s second National Medal of Science recipient; Founding Member Robert Weinberg, also an MIT professor of biology, garnered the honor in 1997.
In addition to Lindquist and Weinberg, six current members of the MIT faculty have won the National Medal of Science. A list of current and former MIT community members who have won the award can be seen here: http://web.mit.edu/ir/pop/awards/medal_science.html