U.S. president bestows medal on Penn State plant geneticist

Washington, D.C. --- Sixteen scientists including Penn State's Nina Fedoroff, three corporations, one research team and seven innovators were honored July 27, 2007 as the latest National Medal of Science and Technology Laureates for their contributions in areas ranging from paleoclimatology to the chemical synthesis of DNA, from mathematics education to the dissecting of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

"America is proud of those who carry on our nation's long legacy of discovery, and the National Medals celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of some of our most talented scientists, engineers and innovators," said U.S. President George Bush in the official program. "By challenging the status quo and boldly asking important questions, you have applied your talent to great purposes and achieved historic results that will endure beyond your years."

At the ceremony, Bush noted, "Each of our Laureates has deepened our understanding of the world, and many have directly changed our lives. Their discoveries have led to hopeful treatments for HIV/AIDS, new vaccines to prevent childhood illnesses, safer drinking water around the world. Innovations are responsible for the CD players in our homes, the guardrails on our highways, the stealth fighters in our Air Force. Their breakthroughs have helped make it possible for burn victims to heal with fewer scars, and older people to hear more clearly, businesses to e-mail documents around the world, and doctors to administer medicine without needles. That's a much welcome change for a lot of us.

"Whatever their chosen field, the National Laureates in Science and Technology have brought great credit to themselves and this country. And you have the gratitude of the American people," he added.

The National Medal of Science honors individuals for pioneering scientific research in a range of fields that enhances our understanding of the world and leads to innovations that give the U.S. its global economic edge. The National Medal of Technology recognizes individuals, teams and/or companies/divisions for their outstanding contributions to America's economic, environmental and social well-being through the development and commercialization of technology products, processes and concepts.

The full list of the 2005 and 2006 National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology recipients is at http://www.technology.gov

Fedoroff, the Verne M. Williaman chair in life sciences and an Evan Pugh professor at Penn State, is one of the nation's most prominent researchers in the life sciences and biotechnology. At the ceremony, the Penn State scientist was recognized for "pioneering work on plant molecular biology and for her being the first to clone and characterize maize transposons. She has contributed to education and public policy pertaining to recombinant DNA and genetic modification of plants."

"We are very proud of Professor Fedoroff and delighted with this great honor for such an outstanding member of the Penn State faculty," said Daniel Larson, dean of the Eberly College of Science. "Professor Fedoroff has made enormous contributions to Penn State and to the country as a scientist, as an academic and scientific leader, and as a communicator of science and scientific issues. She sets a very high standard of contribution and accomplishment for scientists at Penn State and across the country."

Douglas Cavener, head of the biology department in the college, added, "The National Medal of Science is the highest honor bestowed to scientists in our nation. It goes without saying that this a proud moment in the history of our distinguished department."

Fedoroff noted, "It is extremely rewarding to have such recognition for your life's work. Professionally, it is my hope that it will help me in my new position as science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State."

In addition to the honor, the scientist will move to Washington D.C., as the U.S. Department of State's chief scientist and principal liaison with the national and international scientific and engineering communities, on leave from the University starting next month. Her duties for the next three years will include providing advice on current and emerging science and technology issues as they impact foreign policy, enhancing science and technology literacy and capacity at the State Department, and increasing the number of scientists and engineers working in Washington and in missions abroad.

The public stage is a familiar scene to Fedoroff. In addition to serving on international and national scientific organizations, she is a member of the distinguished National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Board, a 24-person board that oversees the activities of the National Science Foundation.

Most recently, she has been active in public discussions surrounding the introduction of genetically modified crop plants. Her book "Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods," co-authored with Nancy Marie Brown, provides a well-documented history of how the DNA in our food has been altered in various ways over the centuries and a clear account of the science, issues and people involved in the development of genetically engineered foods.

In a 2005 Research Penn State online article, the scientist noted, "We've been changing the genetic makeup of our food for millennia, coaxing nature to do our bidding. Long before scientists understood what genes were and how they worked, early civilizations created wheat and corn. These crops, so very different from their wild ancestors, were mankind's first ventures in genetic modification. In time, plant breeders learned to stir up plant genes faster, using novel hybridization methods, chemicals and even radiation, to produce such marvels as white blackberries, Ice Cube lettuce and Rio Red grapefruit.

"The label sparks heated debate," she said. "Genetically modified foods are as safe to eat as foods made from plants modified by more traditional methods of plant breeding. In fact, they are very probably safer, simply because they undergo testing that has never been required for food plants modified either by traditional breeding techniques or by mutagenesis, both of which can alter a plant's chemical composition.

Rita Colwell, the University of Maryland researcher of marine microbes, most notably the causative agent of pandemic cholera, joined Fedoroff as the only women in both groups of awardees.

Fedoroff noted,"The most important thing is to find something that catches your imagination -- and then devote yourself to it, irrespective of possible rewards."

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Photos of the ceremony are at http://live.psu.edu/stilllife/1397 online.

Video is at http://live.psu.edu/video/9

The full story on Fedoroff's award is at http://live.psu.edu/story/25084 online.
The full story on Fedoroff's new appointment is at http://live.psu.edu/story/25120 online.

Research Penn State articles on genetically modified foods are at http://www.rps.psu.edu/probing/modified.html and
http://www.rps.psu.edu/0109/miracle.html online.

A 2005 WPSU-TV interview at Pennsylvania Inside Out is at
http://streams.wpsx.psu.edu/Genetically-Modified12092.html online.

Last Updated November 18, 2010