Sallie (Penny) Chisholm awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for scientists

February 19, 2013

By Kathryn O’Neill
Civil & Environmental Engineering Correspondent

CEE Professor Sallie (Penny) Chisholm has been awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor in science and engineering. President Obama presented her with the award in a White House ceremony on February 1, 2013. 

“Winning this award is without a doubt the high point of my career,” said Chisholm, who is the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biology. “The White House ceremony was much more thrilling than I had imagined. It is difficult to describe, but it was an incredible privilege to be there and to have the medal put around my neck by the president.” 

Chisholm was one of just 12 researchers across the country to receive the Medal of Science for 2011. The ceremony also honored the 11 winners of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, including Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. 

“We are so grateful to all of you,” Obama said. “The incredible contributions that you’ve made have enhanced our lives in immeasurable ways, in ways that are practical but also inspirational. And so we know that you are going to continue to inspire and in many cases teach the next generation of inventors and scientists who will discover things that we can’t even dream of at this point.” 

Chisholm is best known for her research on the ocean phytoplankton Prochlorococcus — the world’s smallest, yet most abundant, photosynthetic organism. Chisholm led the team that discovered it in 1988.  Using this cyanobacterium as a model system, she has focused her research on how marine microbes shape the chemical composition of the Earth's oceans and atmosphere. Her medal citation reads: “For contributions to the discovery and un