Two Smithsonian scientists receive prestigious presidential awards for scientific leadership

Paleontologist Nick Pyenson and astronomer John Kovac have received the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists in the early stages of their careers.


Paleontologist Nicholas Pyenson of the National Museum of Natural History, and astronomer John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics were among the 102 scientists and engineers who were named recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Pyenson was recognized for his work merging fossil records and modern data to investigate how land-dwelling animals evolve into ocean predators, for growing the Smithsonian collection and developing 3D digital tools to expand public access to fossil records, and for discovering in feeding whales a sensory organ that allowed them to become the largest vertebrates in history.

Kovac was recognized for his work in advancing the most sensitive measurements of polarization of the cosmic microwave background, the faint fossil radiation from the Big Bang. That polarization reveals clues to the origin of the universe. To study it requires very stable conditions, like those found in the cold, dry air of Antarctica.

Kovac has just returned from the South Pole, where much of his team is still working hard on installing and calibrating the first of the next generation of “BICEP Array” microwave telescopes.

John Kovac at the South Pole

John Kovac

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” President Obama said Jan. 9. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that Federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”

The Presidential Early Career Awards highlight the key role that the Administration places in encouraging and accelerating American innovation to grow our economy and tackle our greatest challenges.

The awards, established by President Clinton in 1996, are coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President. Awardees are selected for their pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and their commitment to community service as demonstrated through scientific leadership, public education, or community outreach.

Posted: 9 January 2017
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Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.