The microphones did not pick up Barack Obama’s private words to MIT biochemist JoAnne Stubbe just before he draped the ribbon with her National Medal of Science around her neck, but his public ones were of gratitude on behalf of the American people. Minutes before, he had expressed similar sentiments about retired physicist Berni Alder.
Together, the two comprised one quarter of the annual crop of Medal of Science winners, all of whom received their honors — the highest bestowed by the United States government on scientists, engineers, and inventors — at a White House ceremony on October 7, 2009. What Stubbe and Alder have in common, aside from their new bling, is that both earned graduate degrees at Berkeley, she a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1971, he an M.S. in chemical engineering in 1948, following his 1947 B.S. here in the same subject.
Alder divided much of his career between two other stars in the UC galaxy, the Davis campus, where he helped found the Department of Applied Sciences (encompassing physical sciences and engineering), and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Though now in his mid-80s and retired from those organizations, Alder still works three afternoons a week at Livermore and two afternoons a week at Berkeley.
Alder is widely regarded as the founder of molecular dynamics, a type of computer simulation used for studying the motions and interactions of atoms over time, now used across a broad range of sciences, from fundamental physics to molecular biology. At the time of his pioneering work, his computer methods marked a radical change in how scientists thought about such problems. He made it possible to simulate the ways molecules, including those of fluids and solids, behave — all of which, as Alder’s medal citation said, “contributed to major achievements in the science of condensed matter.” Where it all went, Alder has said, “certainly exceeded any expectation I had as to how far we could go and how big the computers would get. In the early days, we could do 100 particles in one hour on the Univac. Now we can do a trillion particles in one hour.”
Stubbe, who is due back in Berkeley in May to be the keynote speaker at the College of Chemistry’s commencement, did a postdoc year at Berkeley (1971-72) after earning her Ph.D. She taught thereafter at Williams College, Yale’s medical school, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison before joining the MIT faculty in 1987.
Over the last four decades, her groundbreaking research has helped scientists understand the ways in which enzymes catalyze, or cause chemical reactions. Focused on the enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of DNA, the molecule of heredity, her work has led to the design and synthesis of drugs that may help fight viruses, parasites, and cancers. She and another MIT professor are now finding ways to use bacterial enzymes to produce biodegradable thermoplastics, a possible alternative to the traditional oil-based plastics that occupy so much of the planet’s landfill.
Stubbe and Alder and their fellow Medal of Science recipients are all, in the words of President Obama, “national icons, embodying the very best of American ingenuity and inspiring a new generation of thinkers and innovators.”