What did UC San Diego Bioengineering Professor Shu Chien and President Barack Obama talk about as Chien received the National Medal of Science from the president Friday at the White House? About the importance of science education and research, of course.
The president had just given a short speech on that topic, before bestowing the medal to Chien and six other researchers, as well as to five winners of the National Medal of Technology. When it was his turn to get the medal, Chien shook Obama’s hand.
“I thanked him for his inspiring speech,” Chien said afterwards. “That’s what the country needs. The strength of our country depends on science and engineering.”
Chien received the National Medal of Science in recognition of his contributions in the field of cardiovascular physiology and bioengineering. His research has led to the development of better diagnostic tests and treatments for atherosclerosis, as well as other diseases.
“The truth is that today’s honorees have made a bigger difference in our lives than most of us will ever realize,” Obama said.
“They worked those long nights, they made those sacrifices, they took on those challenges and ran those experiments and devoted their lives to expand the reach of human understanding,” he said. “And that’s why we recognize them today.”
The president also pointed out that three-quarters of the honorees were born outside of the United States. That includes Chien, who was born in Beijing and grew up in Shanghai. These men and women looked for the best university and the best labs to complete their studies and came to this country, Obama said. “America is the best place in the world to do the work that they do,” he said. “And now more than ever, it’s critical that we make the investments necessary to keep it that way.”
After the ceremony, Chien echoed the president’s comments during a phone interview. “We’re facing the possibility of losing this edge,” he said. “It’s high time that we address that critical issue.”
Money matters of course, but it’s only a means of attracting people to the field of science and engineering and enabling them to pursue their innovative ideas, Chien cautioned. “In the end, it’s the people that matter,” he said: the teachers in elementary, middle and high schools, the professors in higher education and the students and researchers at all levels.
He said he would like to see an increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which fund the lion’s share of research done in U.S. universities, as well as for kindergarten through 12th-grade education. Investments in higher education and science pay for themselves, he pointed out. They create new technologies, new businesses and new jobs.
Economic times are hard, he said, but education, research and innovation can actually improve this economic outlook. Policy-makers must look several years ahead, he added. “When times are hard, vision is important,” he said.
Chien also pointed out that teamwork is key to the scientific enterprise. He added that he wanted to dedicate his medal to the colleagues, students and postdoctoral researchers he has worked with over the years. He is also grateful to UC San Diego and Columbia University, where he served as professor from 1969 to 1988, for creating the environment that allowed him to pursue his research interests.
Chien also said he owes his medal to the support given to him by his parents, teachers and, especially, his wife. He was happy that his wife, two daughters, one son-in-law, and four of his six grandchildren were able to attend the ceremony, he said. He never expected to receive such an honor, he added.
“I am very excited and I feel so honored,” Chien said.
He pledged to keep on working to make new discoveries that improve people’s health and quality of life. His fellow medal winners will do the same, Obama said.
“It’s the people on this stage who make me incredibly hopeful about the future,” the president said. “Even at a time of great uncertainty, their stories remind us that there are still discoveries waiting to be made and unlimited potential waiting to be tapped. All we have to do is encourage it and support it.”
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