Caltech professor awarded National Medal of Science

Jacqueline K. Barton, a Caltech chemistry professor who has pushed the boundaries of DNA research, has been awarded the National Medal of Science, becoming the first woman at the Pasadena campus to receive what is considered the U.S. government’s highest honor to scientists, officials announced Tuesday.

Barton was one of seven recipients of this year’s medal, a prize that her husband, Peter Dervan, also a Caltech chemist, won in 2006. Administrators of the prize, which was first awarded in 1962, said they were not aware of any other husband and wife who had both received it.

The White House cited Barton for the discovery of a new property of the DNA helix and experiments on long-range electron transfers. She has built electrical sensors capable of detecting DNA mutations and proteins that can distort it, experiments that may aid research into colon and breast cancer, officials said.


“It is an extraordinary honor. It means a lot to me and is more than I ever expected,” Barton, 59, said Tuesday. She said the award was even more meaningful because her husband had also won it; the couple plan to display the medals side by side above the fireplace at their San Marino home.

Barton is the 40th woman to receive the medal, which has been awarded to 435 men over the years, according to the National Science Foundation. Barton said she hoped the many women she has taught at Caltech will help raise the number of such winners in the future.

“The real goal is that for their generation no one will even have to mention that,” she said, referring to gender. “It won’t be a big deal.”

Born in New York, Barton earned her doctorate in chemistry at Columbia University. She joined the Caltech faculty in 1988 and now heads the university’s division of chemistry and chemical engineering. Barton’s previous awards include a MacArthur Foundation grant.

This year’s winners also included UC San Diego bioengineering professor Shu Chien, chosen for work in cardiovascular physiology that has led to better diagnostic tests and treatments for hardening of the arteries and other diseases. Chien, who is 80, was born and raised in China, earned a doctorate in physiology from Columbia and has been at the San Diego campus since 1988.

Other medal recipients were: Ralph L. Brinster, a University of Pennsylvania veterinarian, for his contributions to the development and use of transgenic mice; biologist Rudolf Jaenisch of Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for research on biological mechanisms and genetic information; Peter J. Stang, a University of Utah organic chemistry professor, for work on organic supramolecular chemistry; Richard A. Tapia, a Rice University mathematician, for his research in numerical analysis and for his efforts in mathematics and science education; and S. R. Srinivasa Varadhan, a New York University mathematician, for research on probability theory.