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Monday, July 16, 2007

MIT trio wins nation's top honors for science, technology

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff

Two professors at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and the institute's former president have been chosen to receive the nation's highest honors for science and technology, the White House announced today, an extraordinary concentration of achievement for one university.

Tapped by President George W. Bush to receive the 2006 National Medals of Science were Robert S. Langer, renowned for developing new ways to administer drugs to cancer patients, and Daniel Kleppner, an authority on atomic physics and quantum optics.

Charles M. Vest, who served for 14 years as president of MIT until 2004, was named by Bush to receive the National Medal of Technology. He won acclaim during his tenure for his efforts to strengthen national policy on science, engineering, and education.

Langer and Kleppner bring to 47 the number of MIT scientists to receive the prestigious Medal of Science. Vest is the fifth MIT engineer or inventor to win the Medal of Technology.

MIT was the only New England university to win the medals for 2006 and the only university in the country to win more than one. A total of eight science medals and five technology medals were awarded.

"MIT is extraordinarily proud that three esteemed members of our community have been selected for this honor," said Susan Hockfield, president of MIT.

The winners, she said, have "made enormous contributions to MIT, to our nation, and to science."

The National Medal of Science was established in 1959 to honor individuals who have made outstanding contributions to "physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences." In 1980, Congress extended the award to include social and behavioral sciences.

The National Medal of Technology was created in 1980 to honor individuals who make "lasting contributions to America's competitiveness, standard of living, and quality of life through technological innovation," according to the White House.

Langer was cited for "revolutionary discoveries" that led to better ways to administer drugs. These treatments, the citation said, "have profoundly affected the well-being of mankind."

In the 1970s, chemical engineer Langer teamed with oncologist Judah Folkman at Children's Hospital Boston to develop methods that would allow large proteins to enter membranes in a highly controlled manner to combat angiogenesis, the process by which tumors recruit blood vessels that sustain them. The treatment helped fight cancer by making it more difficult for tumors to spread to other organs.

Kleppner received the medal for pioneering studies of the interaction between atoms and light, and for "lucid explanations of physics to non-specialists."

In 1960, Kleppner developed with Harvard physicist Norman Ramsey the "hydrogen maser," an atomic clock of great stability used in radio signalling, radio astronomy, and satellite-based global positioning systems.

Kleppner also helped create a whole new field of physics, the study of "ultra-cold" gases.

Vest was cited by President Bush for "visionary leadership in advancing America's technological workforce and capacity for innovation."

The medals will be presented by the president at a White House ceremony on July 27.

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