Chisholm granted high honor

National Medal of Science to biology oceanographer

MIT’s Sallie W. (Penny) Chisholm has been awarded the National Medal of Science, one of 12 recipients in 2012, the White House announced in December. The National Medal of Science is annually given to individuals “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences,” according to the National Science Foundation. In a White House ceremony this Thursday, President Barack Obama will present the award to Chisholm — the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Civil and Environmental engineering, and the 48th MIT scientist to win the honor — for her research in microbial oceanography.

“I was incredibly surprised,” said Chisholm on her reaction upon being notified of her selection. “I’m excited that the committee is recognizing my field. The honor doesn’t often to go people in my field, so that’s an exciting recognition of microbial oceanography.”

Her interest in biological oceangraphy started with her undergraduate senior thesis project. “The project involved lakes. That was the first time I looked at phytoplankton under the microscope — I was intrigued,” said Chisholm.

She now studies Prochlorococcus, the smallest and most abundant photosynthetic cell on the planet. “Pythoplankton are responsible for half of the photosynthesis on earth. They’re very unappreciated and under-noticed, despite being the base of the foodweb in the ocean,” said Chisholm. “I’m fascinated by them, and I want them to be recognized as significant players.” According to Chisholm, there are many things she has learned about phytoplankton through her research that can be used in actual applications, such as biofuels.

Chisholm is currently on sabbatical. Soon, she will spend a month in Italy at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, a “place for scholarly retreat and writing,” where she will be working on a book.

In addition to her research, Chisholm has also published two children’s books and is working on a third. The first two, Living Sunlight and Ocean Sunlight, co-authored with writer and illustrator Molly Bang, aim to teach about photosynthesis on land and in the oceans, respectively. Her third book will be on fossil fuels.

“We make sure everything in the books is scientifically correct, and we use scientific terms,” said Chisholm. “They’re children’s books, but they’re really intended for all ages. Anyone who reads them could learn something new, or something they’d forgotten.”