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President Barack Obama shows off his newly acquired T-shirt after learning about the energy storage research conducted by Professor Alexander H. Slocum ’82. MIT President Susan Hockfield accompanied Obama during his tour through the labs at MIT on Friday. Slocum explained a system for harnessing excess wind energy. When the wind is not blowing, water flowing into the storage area through a turbine produces electricity. When the wind is blowing, excess power is used to pump water out of the storage area.
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President Barack Obama commended MIT for its “extraordinary energy research” and urged America to take leadership in cleaner technologies in a speech this past Friday at Kresge Auditorium.

“This is the nation that has led the world for two centuries in the pursuit of discovery. This is the nation that will lead the clean energy economy of tomorrow,” Obama said to a crowd of about 750, including over 200 students and faculty.

Before the speech, President Susan J. Hockfield and MIT Energy Initiative director Ernest J. Moniz led Obama on a tour of several laboratories focusing on clean energy and technology.

Obama’s speech singled out innovation as the solution to America’s challenges. He talked of a “peaceful competition” with other countries to develop alternative sources of energy.

“The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation,” he said.

He pointed out that the Recovery Act, or stimulus bill, is already leading the U.S. in the direction of green jobs and research. The act provides the “largest single boost in scientific research in history,” he said.

The law also sets aside $80 billion dollars for creating jobs in alternative energy and energy efficiency. For Americans this investment acts “not just help to end this recession, but to lay a new foundation for lasting prosperity,” he said.

Obama also advocated for the Senate climate change bill, which he said would “transform our energy system into one that’s far more efficient, far cleaner.” The bill would introduce a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama visits Bldg. 13, professors present research

During his pre-speech laboratory tour, Obama saw presentations on high-powered, virus-assembled batteries and solar cells from Professors Angela M. Belcher and Paula T. Hammond ’84; quantum dot LED lights from Professor Vladmir Bulovic; offshore wind turbines from Professor Alexander H. Slocum ’82; and solar cell concentrators from Professor Marc A. Baldo.

“It was amazing just to have him coming here to an MIT laboratory and to see him engage in science,” said Hammond. “When he came to the group, he was incredibly warm and engaging. He was very excited about the virus battery,” she said.

Hammond said that she and her collaborator Belcher, like the others, didn’t find out that they would be presenting their research for the President until only a few days before Friday. Despite the short deadline, she said that the group was still able to pull together a new poster presentation and two demonstrations focusing on their virus-assembled batteries and solar cells for their presidential display.

Belcher described that the group was presented with the challenge to assemble a presentation that was “easy to describe, had no chemicals, and no water.” To meet this task, Belcher said a team of several graduate students and postdocs “worked around the clock for two days.” They showed of one of their virus batteries powering an LED, and one of their virus-assembled solar cells driving a fan. The fan had “Yes We Can” written on one of the blades.

Belcher said the president really enjoyed the inscription. “That’s my campaign slogan,” he said, breaking into a big smile.

Hammond said it was “interesting how quickly [Obama] understood the technology,” and that he asked several great questions such as “How can biology solve these problems?”

Although each group had only roughly five minutes to present, Belcher said that her group also tried to emphasize the research’s applications for “reducing soldiers’ load, creating flexible solar panels, and creating high power batteries for hybrid vehicles.”

At the end of the other groups’ presentations, Belcher said that she handed Obama a card with the periodic table of elements. “In case you’re ever in a bind and need to calculate a molecular weight, here’s a periodic table for your wallet,” she said. The other side of the card had a chart of amino acids.

Obama later referenced this gift in his speech. “This tells you something about MIT — everybody hands out periodic tables … what’s up with that?”

Although none of the faculty who presented their research to the present could also watch the speech from Kresge due to timing and security reasons, the professors largely agreed that the speech and the president was on par with expectations.

“I thought the speech was right on point. First of all, it gave a great sense of the power of innovation and the possibilities of both fundamental and developmental research,” said Hammond. “I also loved the fact that he referenced each of the research displays, described them quite well, and showed excitement.”

“I think that’s unique in a president or any national leader,” Hammond said.

“He’s just a warm, friendly human being.” Slocum said. “I’ve met plenty of plastic politicians. Obama is just real.”

Bulovic, who presented the ultra-efficient quantum dot light technology, said he was very uplifted by the president’s speech on energy and honored to present his lab’s research.

“There are many labs at MIT that have equally filled their purpose, so we feel especially honored for this opportunity,” he said.

Crowds gather, Obama cracks jokes

After the lab tour, Obama arrived at Kresge shortly after 12:30 p.m. Cecilia R. Louis ’10, a member of the Chorallaries, sang the national anthem. Louis said that she was informed just two days in advance that she would be signing the national anthem for the presidential speech. “I may or may not have turned in my psets late [that week],” she said.

Both Hockfield and Moniz gave brief opening comments. Moniz praised Obama’s “commitment to integrating sound science and critical analysis.”

Obama began his speech with a light jab at his alma mater. “It’s always been a dream of mine to visit the most prestigious school in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said to laughter and cheers. After a pause, he added “hold on a second — certainly the most prestigious school in this part of Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

Most students did not get tickets, but many gathered near Kresge to try and catch a glimpse of the President. A few people also showed up to protest, drawing attention to human rights violations, the Afghanistan war, healthcare reform, and abortion. When Obama’s motorcade came down Memorial Drive around 12:30 p.m., there were screams and pointing as the crowd ran down Mass. Ave. to see the procession.

Later, in Kresge, Obama would return the enthusiastic greeting. “You just get excited being here and seeing these extraordinary young people and the extraordinary leadership of Professor Hockfield because it taps into something essential about America — it’s the legacy of daring men and women who put their talents and their efforts into the pursuit of discovery.”

Student reactions

As one of the few MIT students to get a ticket to see Obama’s speech, co-president of MIT’s Energy Club Timothy D. Heidel G said Obama’s visit “speaks to how far the entire MIT community has come in establishing itself as a leader in energy.”

Forgan McIntosh G, the other co-president of the club, echoed Heidel’s remarks, but added that he would have liked to hear Obama “talk with greater specificity” about climate legislation. Obama mentioned the Senate climate bill, but only in terms of how he thought it would “transform” America. He did not say that the bill would introduce a cap and trade system for greenhouse gases, nor did he use the terms “carbon” or “greenhouse gas” in his speech.

Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, then came down from the podium to shake hands with MIT faculty and students. He left promptly after 1 p.m. to attend a $500-a-head fundraiser for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Patrick were both in attendance.

Louis, who sang the national anthem for the event, said she appreciated how the speech “catered to people working hard to improve efforts in energy considerations.” After the speech, she got to shake his hand. Louis said Obama told her he was “so glad” she was there. “I almost died,” she said.

Some students who couldn’t get tickets took more creative measures to see the president.

McCormick resident Hamsika Chandrasekar ’13 said that she and several friends tried watching the motorcade from the East Penthouse’s view, but they were eventually asked to leave by Secret Service personnel.

“We thought it was so great,” said Chandrasekar. “We were all set to video tape entire procession and all the sudden they were like “guys off the roof, Secret Service, off the roof!”

Instead, Chandrasekar said that the group of McCormick residents relocated to the dormitory’s dining hall to watch the webcast of the speech. From the windows of the dining hall, she said that they were able to catch sight of the president leaving in his limo.

“I think I had more fun being outside of it than waiting in line and being in Kresge for 20 minutes,” she said.

John A. Hawkinson and Jessica J. Pourian contributed reporting.