Del Mar resident enjoys science discussion with President Obama

President Barack Obama talks with U.S. recipients of the 2010 Kavli Prize in the Oval Office on June 6. (Second from left: Fred Kavli, chairman and founder, The Kavli Foundation; Third from left: Robert W. Conn, president, The Kavli Foundation.)  (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with U.S. recipients of the 2010 Kavli Prize in the Oval Office on June 6. (Second from left: Fred Kavli, chairman and founder, The Kavli Foundation; Third from left: Robert W. Conn, president, The Kavli Foundation.) (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

By Joe Tash

Contributor

Del Mar resident Robert Conn found his visit last month to the White House, which included a meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, “both wonderful and surreal.”

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Robert Conn

Conn, who is president of the Kavli Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the advancement of science, traveled to Washington, D.C., to honor a group of award-winning scientists.

When the group arrived at the White House on June 6 for the presidential visit, its members had to go through two separate security checkpoints before they were allowed to enter the West Wing, where “we were marching like a set of soldiers around a labyrinth of hallways,” said Conn.

Next, they waited in a hallway near two doors — one made of beautiful, stained wood and the other, a non-descript white door. “All of a sudden, the white door opens, and there’s President Obama,” said Conn.

The group of scientists and dignitaries was arranged in a semicircle around Obama, who stood in the center of a carpet bearing the presidential seal. Obama chatted with the group about various scientific topics and the recent NBA playoffs, and after about 20 minutes, the visitors were ushered back the same way they had come.

“There you are, an hour later, standing on the sidewalk,” where the experience had begun, said Conn. “In the middle you had this fantastic trip, this magic carpet trip to another world, it’s almost like now you’re back to reality.”

The scientists who met with Obama were American winners of the 2010 Kavli Prize. Every other year, the Kavli Foundation, in conjunction with the government of Norway, presents three $1 million prizes for outstanding achievement in the areas of neuroscience, nanoscience and astrophysics. The cash prizes are split among the award recipients. Winners also receive a scroll and gold medal, which were presented last year by King Harald of Norway in a ceremony held in Oslo.

“It’s a reward for having done something terrific for science,” Conn said.

While the award — and its parent foundation — might not be household names, that may be changing thanks to such high-profile activities such as presidential meetings. Last year marked the second time the awards have been given, following their debut in 2008, when winners met with former President George W. Bush just before he left office.

The ceremony is modeled after the Kavli Prize’s more famous cousin, the Nobel Peace Prize, which is also awarded in Oslo, Conn said.

Conn is a former dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD. After leaving the university in 2003, he joined a La Jolla-based venture capital firm, then took over the presidency of the Kavli Foundation in 2009. He and his wife, Anne Hoger Conn, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCSD, have lived in Del Mar since 1994.

The Kavli Foundation was established in 2000 by Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-born physicist who built an electronics company, Kavlico Corp., and also amassed a large real estate portfolio. According to Conn, Kavli started the foundation with a gift in the hundreds of millions, and the foundation now spends $15 million to $20 million per year for its various programs.

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