SALT LAKE CITY — Peter Stang, the latest University of Utah scientist to receive the prestigious National Medal of Science, remembers the urgency of his parents to leave his native Hungary two days after his 15th birthday as Soviet tanks began rolling in to occupy the east European country in 1956.
"It brought the old Soviet system: oppression and the lack of freedom," Stang said. "Three hundred thousand Hungarians; 3 percent of the country left."
Stang recalls the fear and exhilaration of coming to the United States — a foreign land, but one filled with opportunity. "I spoke no English then," he said.
From those beginnings, Stang worked hard to become a pre-eminent authority in the field of chemistry. On Tuesday, the White House announced Stang, 69, will receive the National Medal of Science, the highest honor given to a scientist or engineer by the United States.
"It's very humbling, and it's a great honor," Stang said. Stang is a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Utah and the former dean of the U.'s College of Science. He credited the help of more than 100 postdoctoral and Ph.D. students who have helped him in his research.
Stang was among seven scientists honored with the Medal of Science and five inventors honored with the National Medal in Technology and Innovation. Stang will be presented the medal by President Obama later this year.
"Each of these extraordinary scientists, engineers and inventors is guided by a passion for innovation, a fearlessness even as they explore the very frontiers of human knowledge, and a desire to make the world a better place," President Barack Obama said in a statement announcing the awards.
Stang is only the fourth researcher at the U. to receive the honor. "The National Medal of Science represents a pinnacle of accomplishment for American scientists," U. interim president Lorris Betz said.
Stang is renowned for helping to pioneer the field of "supramolecular chemistry," in which chemical molecule units self-assemble to form larger molecules with novel properties. "It's like a Lego set with individual building units," Stang said.
This method could be used to speed up chemical reactions in petroleum refining, or even create new ways to deliver cancer drugs targeted toward tumors.
Tuesday's honor is latest in a long list of honors and awards he has received. He has been ranked 69th on a list of the world's top 100 chemists. The Times Higher Education in Britain put him in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of all chemists worldwide. He has also served as editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the nation's top chemistry journal, since 2002.
Stang credits his success to the freedoms and opportunities he has enjoyed in the U.S. "This is the only country in the world that I know of that takes the best of anyone in the world and gives them the opportunity to succeed. I'm very grateful to the University of Utah and grateful to the citizens of Utah for supporting the university and recognizing the value of what the university can do," he said.
Other University of Utah-related national science medal winners:
• In 2009, President Barack Obama conferred the related National Medal of Technology and Innovation on information age pioneer and Adobe Systems co-founder John Warnock, a University of Utah alumnus.
• Geneticist Mario Capecchi won a National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush in 2002. Five years later he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
• Late University of Utah chemist Henry Eyring won the Medal of Science in 1966.