3 UC Berkeley professors honored with National Medal of Science

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Three UC Berkeley faculty members were selected Friday to receive the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for scientists and scholars.

Alexandre Chorin, campus professor emeritus of mathematics, Judith Klinman, professor emerita of chemistry and the late David Blackwell, professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics, were recognized for their contributions to science and math.

The three UC Berkeley professors were acknowledged along with seven other scientists from across the country. Kliman and Chorin are expected to travel to Washington, D.C. to accept their honors in November.

Since its creation in 1959, the National Medal of Science annually recognizes scientists and scholars who have made significant advancements in the field. The National Science Foundation awards recipients of the medal on behalf of the White House and the president. This year, 10 individuals were awarded the medal.

Klinman received the honor for her work in chemistry, specifically for her work on the structure of catalysis.

“We are interested in biological catalysts: proteins that function as enzymes and carry out reactions that are extraordinarily fast,” Klinman said.

Klinman and her research team use quantum mechanics and chemistry to understand the physical principles underlying biological catalysts.

“Quantum chemistry gave us a unique handle on the problem,” Klinman said. “We got lucky in making an observation that opened a door.”

Chorin, who is a university professor of the University of California — a distinction given to scholars with exceptional teaching abilities — received the medal for his work on computational fluid mechanics. He also serves as a senior faculty scientist in the mathematics group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and works to develop ways for computers to solve partial differential equations. Such equations map how fluids such as air, water and blood move through space.

Klinman and Chorin found out about their honor when they were contacted by the FBI regarding clearance to enter the White House. According to Klinman, she had received a call from John Holdren, senior adviser to President Barack Obama on science and technology, to congratulate her on the award.

Blackwell, who passed away in 2010 and is honored with a posthumous medal, worked in mathematics and statistics and introduced new ideas to the fields.

“There are a number of things that bear his name: the Rao-Blackwell theorem, Blackwell channel information theory. He was a very original thinker who had broad interest in mathematics,” said Peter Bickel, professor of statistics who worked in the department with Blackwell. “Whichever area he worked in, he made new contributions.”

According to Bickel, Blackwell taught in a way that brought life to difficult subjects, making them easier to understand.

In addition to UC Berkeley faculty, Bruce Alberts, who is the chancellor’s leadership chair in biochemistry and biophysics for science and Education at UC San Francisco, also received the award.

Chorin and Klinman both expressed gratitude for their postdoctoral advisers.

“When I found out that I won, I called my postdoc adviser,” Klinman said. “Everything that I know, I learned from him. (Irwin Rose) taught me to be highly critical of the questions I ask and of the results.”

Contact Sierra Stalcup at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SierraStalcup.