Posted on behalf of Susan Young.
Coming back to his office after teaching a class last week, Javant Baliga, a professor of engineering at North Carolina State University, found an unexpected email waiting for him: a message from the White House, telling him that he had won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Baliga, who is director of the university’s Power Semiconductor Research Center, is one of five recipients of the technology medal this year along with seven researchers who have been awarded the National Medal of Science. The two medals are the highest honour the United States bestows on its scientists and engineers.
“It’s not something you expect when you are doing the work, because you do the work for its own interest and implications,” says Baliga.
As an engineer for General Electric, Baliga developed the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor, an energy-saving device that controls the flow of power in many products, from steam irons to light bulbs and car engines.
“Apart from the award and the recognition, the greatest joy is finding my ideas implemented and widely used,” says Baliga.
Rakesh Agrawal, an engineer at Purdue University, was equally surprised to have been chosen. “It truly is a privilege to get this,” he says.
Agrawal received the award for his innovations in producing extremely pure gases and for improving methods of liquefying of natural gas — discoveries made while he worked for Air Products and Chemicals, based in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “We should be thankful for fossil resources,” he says, “because I don’t think the human race would have advanced as much as it did without them,” he says. Now, however, Agrawal is more excited about his current research into solar energy and biofuels.
Science medal awardee Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Insistute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, credits both naïveté and curiosity in the beginning of his career as the start to his successes in molecular biology. He will receive the National Medal for his work on gene activation, mammalian cloning and stem cells.
Jaenisch suggests that young researchers should always follow their curiosity and not worry about whether their work will lead to papers or jobs. “You need to take risks,” he said.
Other science medal winners announced year include:
– chemist Jaqueline Barton, California Institute of Technology
– geneticist Ralph Brinster, University of Pennsylvania
– bioengineer Shu Chien, University of California, San Diego
– chemist Peter Stang, University of Utah
– mathematicians Richard Tapia of Rice University and Srinivasa Varadhan, New York University
In addition to Baliga and Agrawal, Honeywell engineer Donald Bateman, retired engineer Yvonne Brill and TheraManager engineer Michael Tompsett will receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
The researchers and inventors will receive their medals at the White House later this year.