Office of Science and Technology Policy Blog

  • All about Brains at “Super Neuroscience Saturday”

    Super Neuroscience Saturday 1

    On November 23, 2013, Dr. Bobby Heagerty from Oregon Health & Science University led students through a discussion of how their brains work at the "Brain Station," as part of Super Neuroscience Saturday at the National Museum of Natural History. (Photo by Mark DeLoura)

    Last Saturday, OSTP co-hosted an interactive day of neuroscience activities for local middle school students to explore the science of brains. In partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and the Society for Neuroscience, OSTP staffers and participating scientists helped students wrap their minds (and hands!) around applied neuroscience concepts including health, learning, and memory.

    The first part of Super NeuroScience Saturday took place during the day at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History’s new Q?rius exhibit, which opens to the public on December 12. More than 70 students from Washington, DC, public schools explored exhibits by rotating through four different hands-on learning stations. Each station came staffed by top neuroscience experts from participating universities, including George Washington University, the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, Oregon Health and Sciences University, and University of New England.

    The exhibits invited students to explore the anatomy of brains with hand-held brain models, challenged students’ attention and memories with interactive videos, offered a first-hand glimpse of the Museum’s actual scientific collections and specimens, and even included a real-life demonstration of a neuroprosthetic arm.

  • Advice from Student Entrepreneurs: “Embrace your Chutzpah”


    John Bissell (left) and Ryan Smith (right) inspect a pilot reactor. Bissell, Smith, and Casey McGrath (not pictured) co-founded the biotechnology company Micromidas soon after graduating from the University of California, Davis.

    When they founded their biotechnology company, Micromidas, Ryan Smith was 30, Casey McGrath was 24, and John Bissell was 23—and all were recently graduated students at University of California, Davis (UC Davis). Together, they have developed innovative processes for converting sewage into biodegradable plastics—which won them the 2008 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) competition for sustainability—and cellulosic wastes into para-xylene.

    I spoke with John Bissell to find out how he turned his lab research into a growing company. To date, Micromidas has built a pilot plant and raised more than $20 million in venture capital. 

    What was your journey to becoming an entrepreneur?

    We were encouraged by UC Davis Professor Frank Loge to submit an interesting research project for evaluation. We started out as a team of engineers (I am a chemical engineer), and expanded the team to include a microbiologist. We ended up at the EPA P3 event in Washington, DC, as college seniors. At the time, we were converting sewer water into biodegradable plastics through microbial fermentation. After we won the competition, we sat at the Metro Center subway stop thinking the same thing: “Are we going to do more?” 

    After returning home to UC Davis, Professor Andrew Hargadon welcomed us to an entrepreneurship boot camp called the Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy. Its aim was to help scientists and engineers become entrepreneurs. We were some of the only undergraduates at the camp. We wanted to know what it looks like to start a company. By the end of 2008, we had formed Micromidas and an angel investor had provided $200,000 in seed funding.

    How did you go from the R&D stage to a demonstration project?

    I would say things got really interesting in 2010. Micromidas received $3.5 million from a high net worth investor. This helped us with our necessary research and development. We started with microbial fermentation and realized that one of the residual products—after undergoing a chemical conversion—could be transformed into para-xylene. We thought that para-xylene was more interesting than the polyhydroxylalkanoate from microbial fermentation. It turns out that the global para-xylene market is significant--approximately $40 billion annually. After developing and proving out the para-xylene technology, we raised an additional round of capital.

  • We the Geeks: Talking Turkey and the Science of Cooking

    Ed. note: This event has concluded. Watch the full hangout below.

    As we prepare for Thanksgiving here at the White House, you’re invited to join me and a lineup of top food experts as we “talk turkey” and dive into our dinner plates to explore the science of cooking. We’ll be drilling down into the science behind what makes turkey so tasty, why we feel compelled to nap after eating it, and the secret science sauce behind brining and marinating.

    Please join us this Wednesday at 12pm ET for a We the Geeks on the Science of Cooking! The episode will air on in the run-up to President Obama’s annual turkey pardoning at the White House.

    Join Food Network Chef Anne Burrell, former NASA astronaut Ron Garan, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy's Kumar Garg, and me as we discuss the raw science behind turkey, stuffing, and other fixins’ on our Thanksgiving tables like breads, whole grains, flour, and gluten. We’ll also shed light on the exciting chemistry behind cooking and eating: How much carbon dioxide do we consume when eat a meal? And what exactly is fermentation anyway?

    We'll also explore how cooking can be used to get more kids excited about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

    Got comments or questions? Ask them using the hashtag #WeTheGeeks on Twitter and on Google+ and we'll answer some of them during the live Hangout.

    We the Geeks" is a series of Google+ Hangouts to discuss science, technology, and innovation here in the United States. Join the conversation on Twitter and be sure to sign up for email updates about future "We the Geeks" hangouts.

    Bill Yosses is the White House Executive Pastry Chef

    (Editor's note: Check out the Public Service Announcement from Food Network Chef Anne Burrell and Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds on getting kids excited about STEM through cooking.)

  • Advice from Student Entrepreneurs: “Be Fearless and Experiment”

    Epicenter – a national hub for entrepreneurship and engineering education funded by the National Science Foundation – is training young undergraduate engineering students to become entrepreneurial leaders.  Epicenter is accomplishing this goal in part through its University Innovation Fellows program, which unites student leaders from schools across the country to work with their peers to catalyze innovation and startup activity on their own campuses. Epicenter teaches students to conduct analyses of their campus ecosystems; provides them with resources and mentorship; and connects them with one another digitally and at live events to promote creative collaboration.

    Recently, the Fellows launched a new online University Innovation platform through which students can share information about on-campus entrepreneurship programs and resources.  This public, wiki-editable platform allows students to highlight what works, what doesn’t, and what’s needed in terms of entrepreneurial initiatives and models on college campuses.

    We asked these three University Innovation Fellows to share a bit of advice for young entrepreneurs everywhere.

  • Helping Social Entrepreneurs Tackle Global Development Challenges

    Last Monday, in the midst of National Entrepreneurship Month and as countries around the world celebrated Global Entrepreneurship Week, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Government of Sweden rolled out a new $15 million competition to support entrepreneurs who are strengthening global food security and alleviating poverty through market-based solutions that reduce water scarcity in the food supply chain. 

    The Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge for Development offers catalytic financial support and acceleration services – such as business development services, investment facilitation, and market linkages – for entrepreneurs at either of two stages of project development.  Stage 1 is for entrepreneurs with a successful prototype and pilot under their belt now looking to demonstrate the viability of their innovation and business model in an emerging market. Stage 2 is for entrepreneurs who have already demonstrated technical feasibility, market acceptance, and revenue generation in developing country markets and who need help overcoming barriers for further commercial growth.  

    The Securing Water for Food call for proposals is the latest milestone in the Administration’s National Impact Initiative that was launched around the 2013 G8 meeting to grow the community of investors, companies, and social entrepreneurs tackling significant national and global challenges through commercially viable, market-based solutions that intentionally generate both economic return and social impact.  The President believes that social enterprise has a critical role to play as part of a holistic approach to accelerate economic recovery and boost job creation in the United States.  In addition, social enterprise can leverage new capital, skills, and pathways to scale in support of the Administration’s global development commitments, including Power Africa, Feed the Future, and the Global Health Initiative.  The Administration has already taken a number of steps to realize the full potential of impact investing and social enterprise, including creating the Small Business Investment Company Impact Investment Fund, clarifying the rules that allow foundations to invest in social enterprises, and increasing impact investments made by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation,  which committed $333 million to impact investing in 2012 in sectors including healthcare, education, renewable resources, and water.

  • Students Speak: I won the Google Science Fair


    From left to right, Google Science Fair 2013 Winners: Viney Kumar (14, Australia), Ann Makosinski (15, Canada), Elif Bilgin (16, Turkey), and Eric Chen (17, USA). (Photo by Andrew Federman)

    In September, after beating out thousands of contestants from around the globe, Eric Chen, Ann Makosinski, Viney Kumar, and Elif Bilgin were triumphantly presented large, LEGO-made trophies as winners of the 2013 Google Science Fair. Sponsored by Google, LEGO, the Geneva-based European research organization CERN, National Geographic, and Scientific American, the Google Science Fair gives young scientists a platform without borders to showcase their ideas and work. A panel of international judges — including astronauts, professors, journalists, and more — selected winners in three age categories, while the Internet community picked a Voters’ Choice Award winner. I recently asked the four winners about their experience at the Fair, plans for the future, and importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.