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Chisholm, Langer awarded nation’s highest honors for scientists and inventors

Two MIT professors are awarded the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Sallie 'Penny' Chisholm, left, and Robert Langer, right.
Sallie 'Penny' Chisholm, left, and Robert Langer, right.
Photos: Justin Knight, left; M. Scott Brauer, right

MIT professors Sallie (Penny) Chisholm and Robert Langer are among 23 eminent researchers nationwide who have been awarded the nation’s highest honors for scientists, engineers and inventors, the White House announced today.

President Barack Obama will present the National Medal of Science to Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, at a ceremony in early 2013. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor — who won the 2006 National Medal of Science — will receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation at the same ceremony.

Langer joins five engineers and inventors from MIT who have won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation; he becomes one of only a handful of Americans to have won both it and the National Medal of Science. Chisholm brings to 48 the number of MIT scientists to win the National Medal of Science.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” Obama said in naming 12 recipients of the National Medal of Science and 11 recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great — and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

The National Medal of Science was established in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, it recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. A committee of presidential appointees selects nominees on the basis of extraordinary contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, or the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences.

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation was established in 1980 and is administered for the White House by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Patent and Trademark Office. The award recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to America’s competitiveness and quality of life and helped strengthen the nation’s technological workforce. Nominees are selected by a distinguished independent committee representing the private and public sectors.

About the MIT recipients:

Sallie (Penny) Chisholm

Sallie (Penny) Chisholm is a distinguished biological oceanographer whose studies of the dominant photosynthetic organisms in the sea have revolutionized our understanding of life in the world’s oceans.

In 1988, Chisholm was part of a team that discovered the ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus — the world’s smallest, yet most abundant, photosynthetic organism. She has since integrated her studies of this microbe into a new understanding of oceans, using flow cytometry to discover that these small plankton contribute substantially to marine productivity — often accounting for as much as half of oxygen production in some regions of the sea.

Chisholm has also developed Prochlorococcus into a model system that can be studied from the molecular to the global level. She has worked with biochemists, geneticists, microbial ecologists and others to understand Prochlorococcus’ biology from the genomic level up to its role in the global biosphere — examining the organism’s genetic structure, its life cycle, and the viruses that attack it, among other topics.

Robert Langer

Robert Langer is renowned for his revolutionary work on new and different ways to administer drugs to patients.

A biomedical engineer who focuses on biomaterials, Langer has developed a variety of novel drug-delivery systems based on polymers, including materials that can release drugs continuously over a prolonged period of time. In the field of nanotechnology, he is developing particles that precisely target disease sites, including tumors.

Langer is also a pioneer in the field of tissue engineering, where his discoveries led to the creation of new tissues such as artificial skin for burn victims. He is now working on engineering more complex tissues such as cardiac-tissue scaffolds that include electronic sensors.

In the 1970s, Langer developed polymers that allowed the large molecules of a protein to pass through membranes in a controlled manner to inhibit angiogenesis, the process by which tumors recruit blood vessels. Blocking angiogenesis is critical in fighting cancer because the new blood vessels sustain tumors and are thought to allow their cells to escape into the circulation and lodge in other organs.

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