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Meeting the President: Our PECASE Story

EPA scientists Gayle Hagler and David Reif share their experiences receiving
the government’s highest honor for early career scientists and engineers
—and meeting President Barack Obama.

Image not provided

Two EPA scientists were recently bestowed with the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) . The award recognizes excellent research and leadership in the sciences, and is the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.

Dr. Gayle Hagler and Dr. David Reif are the EPA award recipients.

Dr. Hagler was nominated for leading research in the development and use of new technologies, such as electric vehicles and geographic positioning systems, to measure and map air pollutant emissions near roadside locations. She also researched how roadside landscaping can reduce the effects of harmful air pollutants. Dr. Reif was nominated for developing tools for prioritizing and profiling chemicals for potential toxicity to human health and the environment, as well as studying the various subsets of childhood asthma in order to develop more personalized diagnoses, management, and treatment of the disease.

The two scientists share their experiences winning such a prestigious award—which included a trip to the White House to meet the President—with Science Matters.

Here’s their story.

Hi everyone, Gayle Hagler and David Reif here…writing to share some of our experiences receiving the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Pre-award events

  • David: When we first heard about the award in an e-mail from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), it came with explicit instructions that we “not share news of your award with anyone outside of your immediate family” until the White House made its official press release. I must have been wearing a silly grin that entire week until the official announcement.
  • Gayle: I was excited but anxious about all the forthcoming attention. I went shopping for a suit to wear, because it had been quite a long time since I had to wear one!
  • David: We also learned that scheduling with the President is a little bit uncertain (let’s say, his plate is pretty full), but we were very excited that there was at least a tentative plan to meet him at the White House.

Award events

  • David: The ceremony took place on Friday morning at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History . I got a kick out of that because it has been my favorite museum since I was a little kid.
  • Gayle: One of my favorite moments was seeing that the former president of my alma mater (Dr. G. Wayne Clough) was on the program to open up the awards ceremony, as he is now the Secretary of the Smithsonian. I had to hold back from shouting Georgia Tech football cheers when he took the stage.
  • David: I enjoyed listening to people in the room politely gasp (or giggle) as we all tried to understand the impressive technical jargon in the awardees’ citations, like “quantum metrology” or “photoactivated localization microscopy”
  • Gayle: We both really appreciated having a chance to meet and take pictures with high-ranking representatives from the White House, John Holdren from OSTP, and EPA, Lek Kadeli from our own Office of Research and Development.

Going to the White House

  • David: After going through round after round of security checks to get into the White House, we got to wander around the East Wing while waiting for the President to arrive. Then we heard the helicopters…
  • Gayle: I described the commotion to my family as a room full of scientists pressing their faces up against the windows and shrieking with excitement.
  • David: After watching President Obama exit Marine One, they had us line up for the photo. When he eventually walked into the room, everyone erupted into spontaneous applause.
  • Gayle: Apparently he was only scheduled to take a photo and then leave. We were thrilled that he took some time to talk off-the-cuff and shook hands with each one of us. It was an unforgettable experience.
  • David: We weren’t allowed to take pictures (or even touch our cell phones) while in the White House, so the best I could do was take a picture of my hand that had shaken the President’s hand immediately after.
  • Gayle: Why didn’t I think to do that?

Parting Thoughts

  • David: It was a tremendous experience, but since this was an early-career award that basically says, “We like what you’ve been doing—now go prove us right,” I guess it’s back to work.
  • Gayle: I just want to hug everyone in the EPA that helped me along the pathway that led to the chance to shake hands with our President. I’m now in a flurry with a bunch of others getting ready to leave for a field study…definitely right back to work!

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