Two Stanford professors awarded National Medal of Science

When the call from the White House came in late December, Lucy Shapiro wasn’t quite sure how to react.

“When someone gets on the phone and tells you that the President of the United States is awarding you the highest honor that they give in science and technology, and that is also for outstanding service to your nation, it’s quite a thrill,” Shapiro, professor of developmental biology at the School of Medicine, said.

Sidney Drell and Lucy Shapiro sit with George Shultz after receiving the National Medal of Science. [Courtesy of Susan Schendel]

Sidney Drell and Lucy Shapiro sit with George Shultz after receiving the National Medal of Science. [Courtesy of Susan Schendel]

Less than two months later, Shapiro flew to Washington, D.C. for an awards ceremony honoring her as one of 12 National Medal of Science recipients. The annual award recognizes outstanding work by scientists, inventors and engineers, and was also awarded to Sidney Drell, professor emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

“It was simply awesome,” Shapiro said of receiving her medal from President Barack Obama on Feb. 1.

Drell agreed, who said that learning he would receive the award was like a “Christmas surprise.”

“I am a great admirer of President Obama,” he said. “To get in a chance for a few words was a great thrill.”

Though the award recognizes researchers for their overall contributions to their scientific field, the specific contributions of each scientist are listed on their award citations. Drell’s recognized his “application of science to inform national policies in security and intelligence” as well as his work as an advisor to the government.

Drell’s work focuses on reducing the risk of nuclear weapons deployment, with his principal accomplishment being a set of steps — developed in conjunction with Hoover fellow and former Secretary of State George Schultz — to minimize the threat of nuclear weapons internationally, including giving more power to nonproliferation treaties and creating a more transparent and cooperative means of nuclear weapon verification.

“We can count the number of warheads the Russians have on their long range systems, and they can count the number on ours, so you can verify compliance,” Drell said. “That’s a technical challenge and a political cooperation challenge.”

While Drell recognized the difficulties of eliminating nuclear weapons on a global scale, he expressed confidence that, with the correct measures, it may eventually become feasible.

“The vision of zero [nuclear weapons] is a powerful one, but one has to develop the technological and political cooperation so the countries of the world will agree that it’s a goal,” Drell said.

Shapiro was given the award for her work with the genetic circuitry of bacterial cells, which her citation describes as a “pioneering discovery.” Shapiro collaborated with Harley McAdams, a professor of developmental biology at the School of Medicine.

Shapiro and McAdams’ research led to the discovery that bacterial cells work on a three-dimensional grid, which enables cells to track specific regulatory proteins to distinct cell poles during cell division. As specific regulatory proteins go to different cell poles, cell differentiation is initiated.

Shapiro’s other research interests include studying globally emerging infectious disease, and she has become a spokesperson for policy makers on a local and national level. Shapiro is also the founder of Anacor Pharmaceuticals, which uses boron chemistry in the development of new antibiotics and antifungal drugs.

“It’s a very exciting time in biology, because biology now is the physics, chemistry and engineering of the living world,” she said. “It’s a time of just incredible revolutions in our understanding of how the living world works. And of course, this has tremendous implications for controlling disease and understanding pathogens.”

At the ceremony, Obama praised the award recipients for their contributions to scientific fields.

“I am proud to honor these inspiring American innovators,” he said in prepared remarks. “They represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great, and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment.”

Other recipients were recognized for contributions in electrochemistry, marine science, extragalactic astronomy, supersymmetry mathematics, digital communications, lithium ion battery research, borane chemistry and interdisciplinary efforts.