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News Release

Former Jacobs School Dean Robert Conn Meets With President Barack Obama

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President Obama meets with the Norwegian ambassador, Fred Kavli, former Jacobs School Dean Bob Conn (third from left) and seven of the Kavli Prize laureates: Roger Angel (University of Arizona), Jerry E. Nelson (University of California, Santa Cruz), Donald M. Eigler (IBM Almaden Research Center), James E. Rothman (Yale University), Richard H. Scheller (Genentech), Nadrian C. Seeman (New York University), and Thomas C. Südhof (Stanford University)

San Diego, CA, June 23, 2011 --The importance of scientific research for the United States. The importance of getting students excited about science. The excitement of a good basketball game. These were some of the topics Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation, and Robert W. Conn, the former dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering and now president of The Kavli Foundation, talked about with President Barack Obama during a recent visit to the Oval Office.

Conn, a Del Mar resident, visited the White House June 6 as part of a recognition ceremony for winners of the 2010 Kavli Prizes in Science. The prize awards $1 million every other year for basic science research in three areas, neuroscience, nanoscience and astrophysics.

In 2010, there were eight prize winners, seven of whom were U.S. scientists.  The seven U.S. Kavli laureates, together with  Fred Kavli, Conn and the Norwegian ambassador, Wegger Chr. Strommen met with President Obama in the Oval Office. The Kavli Foundation has established the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind (KIBM) in 2005 at UC San Diego.  It is one of 15 Kavli Institutes worldwide focusing on four fields: astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics.

“It’s an extraordinary honor,” Conn said of his White House visit.

“It was also somewhat surreal,” he added.

The journey began with a security checkpoint on the sidewalk in front of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. It continued through a few other checkpoints, until Conn, Kavli and their group found themselves in the West Wing, and then in a waiting area outside of the Oval Office.

They were facing two doors, Conn recalled. One was white and nondescript; the other beautiful and wood-paneled. Conn assumed the president would come through the fancier door, but it turns out that it actually leads to the Roosevelt Room.

Finally, President Obama opened the plain, white door. The group was ushered in and lined up in the order dictated by protocol: first the Norwegian ambassador, then Kavli, then Conn, then the prize recipients.

“You just feel the history of this office,” Conn said. “It’s in the walls, in the windows, in the desk.”

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Robert W. Conn served as dean of the Jacobs School from 1993 to 2002 and is now president of The Kavli Foundation. 

President Obama stood on the rug, inside the presidential seal. He went down the line, exchanging remarks with his guests. He talked about the importance of science for the nation, Conn recalls. The president also said that he and his daughters enjoyed the first-ever USA Science and Engineering Festival, which took place in the nation’s capital last year. Conn told him that The Kavli Foundation supported a science video contest for high school students and winners were announced during the festival. The topic was “Why is Science Cool?” Obama said that was wonderful. Conn, and others in the group, also thanked the president for his support of science.

The visit took place a day following an NBA finals basketball game, so the conversation also included some comments about that game.  About an hour later, Conn found himself back on the sidewalk, in front of the White House—and back to reality, he said.

Conn was dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering from 1993 to 2002. After a stint with Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, he became president of The Kavli Foundation in 2009. Conn said he was attracted to the foundation’s mission to support basic science research rather than applied endeavors. Conn also said he decided to join the foundation because he deeply admires Fred Kavli. Kavli’s love for science comes from his childhood in Norway, where he looked up at the night sky, looked at all the stars and wondered how it all came about.  

Fred Kavli later studied physics at the Norwegian Institute of Technology, then moved to Canada and finally to the United States, where he became a successful entrepreneur and led his company, one the world's largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial applications. He later decided to establish The Kavli Foundation, which will exist in perpetuity. The foundation, based in Oxnard, in turn established the Kavli Prizes and the Kavli Institutes.

“It’s a true American immigrant success story,” Conn said of Kavli’s life.

West Wing Week, the weekly video summary of President Obamaýs week features video from the 2010 Kavli Prize U.S. Laureate visit. (Starts at 2:50, Video Courtesy of Whitehouse.gov) 


Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering