Saturday, 22 October 2011

India-born achievers shine in White House honours list

WASHINGTON: In White House events that underscored both United States' capacity for scholastic absorption from across the world and India's contribution to American advancement, several luminaries of Indian origin have been honored by President Obama this month amid a continuing debate about US intellectual leadership in the so-called knowledge century.

Foreign-born scholars were conspicuous in the White House on Friday when President Obama conferred the National Medals for science, technology and innovation, with India-born scientists prominent among them. As Obama himself noted, three quarters of the dozen honorees were born outside of the US (three of them from India), and "they searched for the best universities and the most advanced labs -- and they found them here, because America is the best place in the world to do the work that they do."

The three India-born scholars honored were New York University's Srinivasa SR Vardhan, Purdue University's Rakesh Agarwal and North Carolina State Univeristy's B Jayant Baliga; the last two originally from IIT.

Their honors follow another White House event earlier this month when the US President welcomed three winners of the Google Science Fair to the Oval Office, all of whom happened to be young women, and two of them - Shree Bose and Naomi Shah - of Indian-origin.

(Earlier this week, Obama also honored Indian-American activist Vijaya Lakshmi Emani posthumously in a White House ceremony with the Presidential Citizens Medal for her work on domestic abuse in the Indian-American community. Andhra-born Emani, a trailblazer for women's rights, died in a road accident in 2009.)

At Friday's event, Obama himself recalled his meeting with Shree, wryly joking about "her first experiment in second grade trying to turn spinach blue...and in fourth grade, she built a remote-controlled garbage can." But for the Google science fair, at the age of 17, he noted that she discovered a promising new way to improve treatment for ovarian cancer. "And she also told me very matter-of-factly that she'll be going to medical school and getting a doctorate, and I suspect she will do so. She did not lack confidence," he remarked amid laughter.

There were similar lighthearted moments about the senior honorees with the US President joking that they make "all of us really embarrassed about our old science projects." But on a more serious note, he said because of their work, "we are one step closer to curing diseases like cancer and Parkinson's...soldiers can see the enemy at night and grandparents can see the pictures of their grandchildren instantly and constantly. Planes are safer, satellites are cheaper, and our energy grid is more efficient, thanks to the breakthroughs they have made."

Indeed, among the honorees was Rakesh Agarwal, a Purdue University engineer who was chosen for the technology award for improving energy efficiency and reduced the cost of gas liquefaction and separation. His work has helped electronic device manufacturing, liquefied gas production and the supply of industrial gases for diverse industries. Baliga was recognized for development and commercialization of the Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistor and other power semiconductor devices that are extensively used in transportation, lighting, medicine, defense, and renewable energy generation systems. Vardhan an alumnus of Presidency College, Chennai and the Indian Statistical Institute, won the award for his work in probability theory, especially his work on large deviations from expected random behavior, which has revolutionized this field of study during the second half of the twentieth century and become a cornerstone of both pure and applied probability.

Obama used the growing prominence of such foreign-born scholars both to boast about America's capacity for absorbing immigrants successfully and offering them opportunities, and also to gee up US-born citizens who are falling off the science and math gradient.

"The key to our success has always been and always will be our unparalleled ability to think up new ideas, create new industries, and lead the way in discovery and innovation. And that's how the future will be won," he said, noting that "Right now, unfortunately, barely more than one in 10 of all undergraduate students are enrolled in STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math -- areas that will be critical if America is going to compete for the jobs of the future."

"And that's troubling, because no matter how many great minds we attract from around the world, it won't be enough if we can't grow some here at home," he added.

Many scholars, notably Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University, have warned that US risks losing its science and technology leadership in the world because of faulty immigration laws that are driving away foreign talent and also a conspicuous lack of emphasis on college education, especially in science and technology.

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