Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers

Scientists vs. Rock Stars

By Dr. Rebecca Dodder

My family is probably not typical.  We lean toward the science geek end of the spectrum.  I’m a scientist, my husband is an engineer, and our kids like math and science much more than any subject, unless recess is a subject.  My kids could tell you who Neil deGrasse Tyson is, but would be hard pressed to point out Justin Bieber or Rihanna in a crowd.  The fact that Justin Bieber is one of the few examples I can think of, probably speaks to how truly uncool I am.  Don’t quiz me on famous actors, singers, YouTube sensations, or popular TV commercials.

Scientists often don’t get visible recognition for the important work that we do.  Popularity is saved for the truly impactful, like funny animal video compilations.  So, when I found out in February that I would be visiting the White House as part of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, I thought that this was one of the brief and fleeting moments when I would be at least on the edges of the limelight — meeting the President — because of doing science as well as outreach to communities.

President Barack Obama joins recipients of the 2013 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for a group photo in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama joins recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for a group photo in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The ceremony included more than 100 scientists and engineers that had been nominated by National Science Foundation, Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, etc. and of course, EPA.  From my perspective, I was in a room with rising stars in science and engineering.  Individuals who had also reached out to students and their communities, connecting their science to people’s lives through mentoring and through service.  There were awards for work on cancer, digital forensics, antibiotic resistance, star evolution, self-healing metals, and my favorite, planetary protection.  I know our EPA Mission is protecting human health and the environment, but the whole planet?  That’s taking it up a notch.  However, another awardee told me that his “favorite agency” was the EPA.  Take that NASA.

We took the group picture in a large lovely room, with President Obama in front middle.  We had waited for a while, careful not to lock our knees, pass out, and fall off the podium.  Strangely enough, there was a stage, microphones, drums, and amplifiers on one side of the room.  Some of us made jokes about who could sing, but that was more of a side thought as we all waited for the President to walk in the room.  Then, he came, and spoke of the importance of science and engineering, of continuing to drive discovery and innovation, and of taking on challenging and complex issues.  We shook some other hands, John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jeff Bezos CEO and founder of Amazon.com.  Then we left.

The funny thing was — as we all walked out of the East Room, down the halls, and out of the White House, with this absolutely strange and dazed feeling of having just shook the hand of one of the most prominent people in the world — I remember passing another smaller group coming in, apparently heading into the same room from which we just came.  I remember thinking that, in my opinion, they were way underdressed to meet the President.  They were dressed mostly in black, a bit grungy in a rock star kind of way.  No suits, no ties.

Later on, I was looking at the White House website, and saw that the group I had seen was a hugely popular Mexican rock band, Maná, which could be described as the U2 of Mexico. I actually know and really like the band’s music, I just didn’t happen to recognize them.  The date was May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, and they were doing for a concert for the President.  The lesson is that rock stars are rock stars, and as scientists we continue the work that protects the environment, improves lives, and maybe even protects Earth’s biosphere from returned extraterrestrial samples just in case we do find life elsewhere.  And every once in a while, we will have our moments of glory, however brief.  And then we get back to work.

About the Author: Rebecca Dodder is a Physical Scientist specializing in the use of energy system modeling tools to assess issues related to biomass and biofuels, agriculture-energy linkages, the water-energy nexus, and the broader life cycle impacts of energy choices.  Rebecca holds a PhD in Technology, Management and Policy from MIT, where she worked with a research program on air quality in Mexico City.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators: President Obama Honors the Nation’s Cutting-Edge Scientists and Engineers

A group of leading researchers—including EPA’s own Dr. Tom Purucker—we were honored today at the White House as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

The following is reposted from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

A group of leading researchers were honored today at the White House as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

After receiving their awards in a ceremony at the U.S. Department of Agriculture with agency officials, friends, and relatives—a ceremony keynoted by OSTP Director John Holdren—the group of 102 ambitious scientists and engineers were greeted at the White House by President Obama who thanked them for their outstanding achievements.

President Barack Obama talks with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) recipients in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (Official White House Photo)

President Barack Obama talks with the PECASE recipients in the East Room of the White House, April 14, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The PECASE recipients are employed or funded by the following departments and agencies: Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Intelligence Community, which join together annually to nominate the most meritorious scientists and engineers whose early accomplishments show the greatest promise for assuring America’s preeminence in science and engineering and contributing to the awarding agencies’ missions.

PECASE awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach. The winners represent outstanding examples of American creativity across a diverse span of issues—from adding to our understanding of the most potent contributors to climate change to unlocking secrets to some of the most pressing medical challenges of our time to mentoring students and conducting academic outreach to increase minority representation in science fields.

For example, Derek Paley, Willis H. Young Jr. Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering Education at the University of Maryland, is studying how fish use sensory organs to perceive their environment in order to build an artificial sensing and control system that will allow underwater vehicles to navigate autonomously.

Or consider PECASE winner Dr. Young Shin Kim, an associate professor at Yale University School of Medicine, who is being awarded for studying the role of environmental risks and gene-environmental interaction in increasing Autism Spectrum Disorder prevalence.

Other winners include Dr. Lucy E. Cohan with the Central Intelligence Agency, who is advancing the design and modeling of the next generation of space telescopes by employing lightweight, active mirror technologies, or Dr. Gavin Peter Hayes with the U.S. Geological Survey, whose research is helping to transform our understanding of earthquake processes and advance real-time response activities when major earthquakes occur.

This is just a snapshot of this group’s incredible accomplishments. Other PECASE recipients are studying black holes in space, using robots to advance student engagement in science, and examining the brain processes behind language and literacy acquisition. Regardless of their area of research, all have demonstrated remarkable success in the lab. Their achievements are paving the way for exciting and important advances and inspiring the next generation of researchers, makers, and innovators. The full list of PECASE awardees can be found here.

With this much progress at this early stage of their careers, we can expect even greater things from these leading lights in the years to come.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Science Wednesday: Working With the Best of the Best

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Katie Lubinsky

Two of our very own EPA scientists, Dr. Gayle Hagler and Dr. David Reif, received the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The award is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers … and I am working with one of them on various communications projects!

Dr. Gayle Hagler—the award-winning scientist I’m working with—was nominated for leading research in the development and use of new technologies (electric vehicles and GPS) to measure and map air pollutant emissions near roadside locations. Such research also looks at how barriers, like sound walls and vegetation, reduce the distance air pollutants travel from highways to nearby communities.

My work with Dr. Hagler involves developing a video about her near-roadway mobile emission research, interviewing her and her colleagues. As part of that work, I will get to take a ride in the mobile measuring vehicle—a converted, electric-powered PT Cruiser with the air measuring instruments conveniently placed in the back. Along with the video project, Dr. Haglar has worked with me on a writing assignment involving EPA black carbon research.

I can easily say how excited I am about working with such a gifted and well-known scientist. To be around and work with a recipient of such a prestigious award makes me realize the unique experience I am having at the EPA where such innovative and intelligent people work. I believe this is a story I will share with others both now and in the future, and one that will open my eyes to her research and how I’m contributing through public outreach.

Dr. Hagler’s co-honoree is EPA’s Dr. David Reif, who was nominated for his work developing tools for organizing and profiling chemicals for potential toxicity to human health and the environment, as well as studying childhood asthma in order to develop more personalized diagnoses, management and treatments. He is also an active member in the community, teaching at a local university and speaking publically to others about science. Dr. Reif has even blogged here on Science Wednesday!

About the Author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor in communications at the Office of Research and Development in Research Triangle Park.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.