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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with recipient of National Medal of Technology and Innovation

UNC chemistry professor Joseph DeSimone was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama on May 19. Staff writer Anna Freeman spoke with him about his research and what it was like to receive an award from a sitting president.

The Daily Tar Heel: In simple terms, what kind of research do you do?

Joseph DeSimone: We have been part of a new effort to design new medicines and using nanotechnology for vaccines and pulmonary medicines including (for) things like asthma and hypertension and COPD, and then more recently we’ve developed a new technique for 3D manufacturing and that’s to bring 3D printing into the world of manufacturing.

DTH: What are the overarching goals of this research?

JD: The overarching goal is to apply our craft ­— polymer science and material science — to improving people’s lives.

DTH: How do you feel you earned this medal?

JD: Well you know, I’m not so sure we earned it. It was very gracious that the president and their search process selected us. I think it’s back to the fact that we’ve done a lot of different things and there’s a theme of (polymer) and material science cutting across medicine to manufacturing. And through all of that the group has been highly focused on embracing diversity in all its forms, whether it’s disciplinary diversity, like hardware, software, molecular science, or its diversity of perspectives.

DTH: What was it like to receive this medal from President Obama? What were you feeling?

JD: Well, what’s striking was he’s such a — just a normal person. He was engaging. He was supportive. He was easy to talk to. He was very, very grateful, which was stunning, to me and all the other laureates regarding our service and it was just unbelievable. Especially this president, he’s just such a terrific person.

DTH: What are some of your other goals? What would like to see accomplished?

JD: Well, we’re going after a big vision right now and that’s 3D manufacturing, and right now since there’s no manufacturing that’s been done with 3D printing it’s all about prototyping and hobbyists.

DTH: What do you love about your research?

JD: What’s cool is that it’s hardcore science and chemistry and physics and engineering, but it’s doing it in a way that’s helping manufacturing. So, that ability to create jobs and use a lot of our machines, I mean, not only in Silicon Valley, but machines in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, and when you go into these places and you look at the economic challenges that they face, we talk to our customers and we give them this amazing tool. It can really revolutionize manufacturing and there’s such heartfelt opportunity here to revolutionize the way people make things. It’s very heartwarming that advances in science can make big impacts in manufacturing, so that’s what really motivates us.

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