Presidential Medal

The Presidential Medal displayed on a wooden surface

Honoring the Technological Humanist

The WPI Presidential Medal was established in 2001 to recognize individuals who represent the ideal of the "technological humanist," a notion that has been at the heart of WPI's approach to education since its founding in 1865. Balancing theoretical studies with practical application, WPI prepares its students to take the knowledge they learn in the classroom and use it, not only to advance the frontiers of science and technology, but to serve the greater public good. This award was established to recognize outstanding individuals from all walks of life who, through their professional or personal accomplishments, exemplify the ideal of the technological humanist.

Past Medalists

Tarek M. A. Al-Shawaf ’55

Founder, president, and chairman of Saudconsult, the oldest and largest engineering and architectural firm in Saudi Arabia 

One of the first Saudi Arabian students sent to the US to study engineering, Tarek M. A. Al-Shawaf ’55 is awarded the Presidential Medal on behalf of Interim President Philip B. Ryan ’65 for his vital engineering and architectural work in developing regions of the Middle East. 

Al-Shawaf enrolled at WPI as part of an overseas scholarship program sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The program was designed to give Saudi Arabian students an advanced engineering education so they could help the nation build its technical capabilities and develop needed infrastructure.  

Upon earning his bachelor of science degree in civil engineering at WPI, Al-Shawaf returned home to Saudi Arabia, accepting a junior engineer position with the region’s largest contractor. Ten years after graduating, in 1965, he launched his own business, Saudi Consulting Services (aka Saudconsult). The company works on architectural and engineering projects ranging from industrial construction to water desalination to oil and gas programs. Outside of Saudi Arabia, the company has completed projects in Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Mali, Djibouti, Azerbaijan, and beyond. Today, Saudconsult employs over 2,000 people with offices in Saudi Arabia, London, Cairo, and Bahrain. 

Embodying WPI’s spirit of active community involvement, Al-Shawaf has held influential roles within multiple Saudi federations and was a founding member of the Steering Committee of the U.S.-Saudi Business Council. In addition, at WPI he’s a longtime member of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Advisory Board and the President’s International Advisory Board.  

Presented on May 17, 2014, at the 2014 Commencement ceremony. 

Diran Apelian, ScD

Provost emeritus and founding director of the Metal Processing Institute at WPI

Diran Apelian is a Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Advanced Casting Research Center at the University of California, Irvine. There, he serves as a senior advisor to the dean of engineering. He is also provost emeritus and founding director of the Metal Processing Institute at WPI.

Apelian received his BS in metallurgical engineering from Drexel University in 1968 and his ScD in materials science and engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972.

He is recognized for pioneering work in solidification processing, metal processing, powder metallurgy, and digital manufacturing. Founding editor of the Journal of Sustainable Metallurgy, he has significantly contributed to the establishment of research in resource recovery, reuse, and recycling. During his tenure as WPI’s provost from 1990 to 1996, he was instrumental in establishing the Metal Processing Institute, which has become one of the largest industry-university consortiums in North America.

With over 700 publications and 22 patents to his name, Apelian serves on several technical, corporate, and editorial boards. He has partnered with colleagues, including former students and WPI alumni, to co-found widely known companies like Materials Strategies, Ascend Elements, Melt Cognition, and Solvus Global, among others. 

Throughout his career, Apelian has received many distinguished honors and awards, both national and international. He was recognized as WPI Innovator of the Year in 2018 and received the same honor from UCI in 2020.

He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering , the National Academy of Inventors, the European Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Armenian Academy of Sciences. 

In recognition of his leadership and impact in support of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, [President Wang] bestow[s] upon Dr. Diran Apelian the Presidential Medal.

Presented March 22, 2024, at the Inauguration of President Grace J. Wang, PhD.

Lt. Colonel Ronald Bashista

Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army, Retired; and Director of Emergency Management at WPI

Ronald J. Bashista was awarded the Presidential Medal on April 13, 2022, on behalf of President Laurie A. Leshin in recognition of his leadership and impact as co-director of the Coronavirus Emergency Response Team 2020-2022.

Arthur C. Clarke

Noted Author and Pioneer in Satellite Communications

With more than 80 books of science fiction and nonfiction, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Childhood's End and Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most prolific and visionary writers of the modern age. In 1945 when he was just 28 he sketched out the idea for orbital communications satellites. Today, geosynchronous satellites float 22,300 miles above the Earth in what's known as the Clarke Orbit.

Educated in physics and mathematics, Clarke developed interests early on in both in interpreting the science and technology of today, and in envisioning the technological leaps of tomorrow. He once said, "As far as the future is concerned, any political or sociological prediction is impossible. The only area where there is any possibility of success is in the technological future."

An extraordinary imagination, rooted a breathtaking depth and breadth of knowledge, coupled with a brilliant talent for storytelling, are qualities that have endeared Clarke to millions of readers. He has expanded our consciousness in virtually every medium, including film, television and the printed page, and has won numerous awards and honors, including the Marconi International Fellowship, the IEEE Centennial Medal, the Hugo, the Nebula and the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master's Award. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Price and for the Academy Award (for 2001). In 1998 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Presented November 30, 2001 at Imagining the Future.

Philip Clay

WPI Senior Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management

A longtime leader focused on the health and well-being of students and the campus community, Philip Clay is awarded the Presidential Medal on behalf of President Laurie A. Leshin in recognition of his leadership and impact as co-director of the Coronavirus Emergency Response Team (CERT) 2020-2022.  

Clay, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, has been instrumental in guiding the student experience at WPI for more than 30 years.  A seasoned higher education professional, Clay oversees nearly every aspect of the WPI student experience, from application through graduation, for WPI’s nearly 7,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students. He leads the Student Affairs division whose varied departments played critically important, front-line roles in guiding students and the entire campus community through the many operational changes necessitated by the pandemic. 

With deep insight into student needs and behaviors, as well as a thorough understanding of university operations, Clay serves as co-chair of WPI’s Emergency Preparedness Team, coordinating the university’s response to critical incidents and emergent situations. His calm and steady around-the-clock guidance, with Lt. Col. Bashista, WPI Director of Emergency Management, helped the university protect the health and safety of its students, faculty, and staff throughout the pandemic.   

Presented on April 13, 2022 by President Leshin at a reception honoring CERT. 

William R. Grogan '46

Dean Emeritus of Undergraduate Studies, WPI; A Founder of the WPI Plan

The following is an excerpt from President Dennis D. Berkey's Inaugural Address:

"I am a mathematician, and one of my heroes is Isaac Newton, a founder of the calculus. Both wise and humble, Newton offered this generous appraisal of his life's work: 'If I have been able to see further than others,' he said, 'it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.'

"Like Newton's world, WPI has benefited from the vision and leadership of true giants, beginning with John Boynton, whose founding gift created our university with the proviso that 'the benefits of this school shall not be confined to the theories of science, but as far as possible shall extend to that practical application of its principles which will give the greatest advantage in the affairs of life.' Hence our motto, Lehr und Kunst, or Theory and Practice, and 140 years of producing graduates not only well educated in engineering, science, and the liberal arts, but also well prepared to apply their knowledge, intellect, and practical experiences from the distinctive components of the WPI program to make a real difference in the world.

"Another of the giants on whose shoulders we stand today is a man who provided inspired leadership to WPI for decades and who led the development of the WPI Plan and our Global Studies Program, the forms in which Boynton's vision has been implemented on this campus, and quite literally around the world, for the past 35 years. He is with us today, and he has honored me by serving as the chair of the committee to organize this inaugural ceremony. He is, of course, our Dean Emeritus William Grogan. On behalf of his many devoted colleagues and thousands of students who matured under his guidance, I call him forward at this time also to receive WPI's Presidential Medal, engraved with his name, today's date, and the simple phrase, 'WPI Visionary.'"

Learn more about Dean Grogan by reading the citation for his 1990 WPI honorary degree.

Presented May 20, 2005, during the inauguration of President Dennis D. Berkey, as Dr. Berkey's first official act following his formal installation.

Dean Kamen '73

President and Owner, DEKA Research and Development Corp.

WPI is pleased to present the first WPI Presidential Medal to Dean Kamen in recognition of his visionary contributions to society, engineering, science and education. A renowned inventor, he founded AutoSyringe Inc., which made the world's first portable drug infusion pump (his earliest patent), while he was still a student at WPI. Today, he oversees DEKA in Manchester, N.H., which specializes in advanced medical technologies, including the IBOT, a revolutionary, stair-climbing wheelchair. He is the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the way American youth views science and technology. Kamen has received numerous awards and honors, including, most recently, the National Medal of Technology. He received an honorary doctorate in engineering from WPI in 1992.

Presented March 30, 2001 at Morphing Education by Infusing Technology (NCSSSMST annual conference).

The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy

United States Senator (D-Mass.)

The following is an excerpt from President Dennis D. Berkey's Inaugural Address:

"During more than four decades of distinguished public service, Senator Kennedy has devoted himself assiduously to the cause of education at all levels. From his creation of government loan packages in the 1960s, to his stewardship of Head Start, to his sponsorship just this past month of BioTeach -- a unique partnership between the biotechnology industry and Massachusetts high schools -- Senator Kennedy has championed the notion that, as he says, 'a decent, quality education is the greatest equalizer for all Americans.'

"As an advocate for science and technology education, Senator Kennedy has no peer. He has consistently raised his voice in support of university research and education and has fought to keep Massachusetts a leader in the bioscience and technology fields. Senator Kennedy, for all you have done for Massachusetts and for America, I am honored to present to you WPI's Presidential Medal, inscribed with your name, today's date, and the simple phrase, 'Education Champion.' Please accept this medal as a symbol of WPI's deep appreciation and gratitude."

Presented May 20, 2005, during the inauguration of President Dennis D. Berkey, as Dr. Berkey's first official act following his formal installation.

Raymond Kurzweil

Inventor and Founder of the Kurzweil Companies

Ray Kurzweil who was the principal developer of the first omni-font optical character recognition system, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizers, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments and the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition system.

He received the Lemelson-MIT prize, the world's largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nations highest honor in technology, as well as scores of other national and international awards including Engineer of the Year from Design News, Inventor of the Year from MIT and the Grace Murray Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. His recent book, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, has been published in nine languages and became the No. 1 one bestselling book on in the categories of science and artificial intelligence.

Presented November 30, 2001 at Imagining the Future.

Paul MacCready

Founder and Chairman, AeroVironment Inc.

Throughout a long and distinguished career as a meteorologist, aeronautical engineer and entrepreneur, Paul MacCready has taken on host of challenges, amassed an amazing record of pioneering achievements, and become widely recognized as one of the most influential engineering minds or our times.

In 1977, with the Gossamer Condor, a 55-pound craft with a 96-foot wingspan, he achieved a milestone in aviation: powering an airplane with nothing more than human muscles. This human-powered plane successfully maneuvered a 1-mile, figure-eight course at an altitude of 10 feet and an average speed of 10 miles per hour to win the coveted $100,000 Kremer Prize. That plane now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, not far from the Wright brothers' Flyer.

As a boy growing up in Connecticut, MacCready developed a passion for model aircraft of all types. During World War II, he trained as a Navy pilot. After the war, he studied physics at Yale and aeronautical engineering at Cal Tech, where he earned a Ph.D. A soaring enthusiast, he worked on a number of innovations for gliders early in his career, including the Speed Ring Airspeed Selector, used by glider pilots worldwide to select the optimum flight speed between thermals (commonly called the "MacCready Speed"). In the 1950s, he co-founded Meteorology Research, a company that specialized in weather modification. In 1970, he launched AeroVironment in California, where he turned his attention to new energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

It was during this time that he developed the Gossamer Condor, and later the Gossamer Albatross, which won a second Kremer Prize by crossing the English Channel under human power. A few years later, his Solar Challenger became the first solar-powered plane to fly across the Channel.

Under his direction, AeroVironment has opened a host of new frontiers in aviation, electric vehicles, telecommunications and energy. With General Motors, AeroVironment designed the Sunraycer, a sleek solar-powered car that won the first trans-Australian solar-powered car race in 1987, as well as the Impact battery powered vehicle. It garnered headlines last summer when its Helios solar plane, designed as a prototype for a high-altitude telecommunications platform, flew to nearly 97,000 feet, shattering altitude records for propeller- and jet-powered planes. AeroVironment is also making headlines with its unmanned aircraft and micro-aircraft. Used for remote surveillance, they are finding a wide range of law-enforcement and military applications.

A member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, MacCready has won numerous awards and honors for his work. They include the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest honor, the Reed Aeronautical Award, and American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Century Gold Medal. Time magazine honored him as one the 100 greatest minds of the 20th century. In 2003, he received the prestigious Heinz Award, in the category of technology, the economy and employment, and the Franklin Institute's Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science, in the field of aviation. WPI recognized MacCready in 1980 with an honorary doctorate in engineering.

Presented November 11, 2002, as part of WPI's celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight.

The Honorable James P. McGovern

United States Congressman (D-Mass.)

The following is an excerpt from President Dennis D. Berkey's Inaugural Address:

"Before coming to WPI, I had known not nearly enough about Congressman McGovern's work. More recently, I have come to appreciate how profoundly he understands and pursues the issues facing our district, many of which are the major issues facing the nation. From the problem of hunger in the Worcester region to jobs and the economy, to education and health care, and on to foreign policy, our Congressman distinguishes himself and our delegation at the highest level. We are fortunate today to be able to present to Congressman McGovern WPI's Presidential Medal, inscribed with his name, today's date, and the word 'Statesman.'"

Presented May 20, 2005, during the inauguration of President Dennis D. Berkey, as Dr. Berkey's first official act following his formal installation.

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray

Former three-term mayor of Worcester and two-term lieutenant governor of Massachusetts 

71st Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts Tim Murray is presented with the Presidential Medal by WPI President Dennis D. Berkey in recognition of his many years of service to the city of Worcester.  

A born-and-raised native, Murray was first elected to Worcester City Council in 1997. In 2001, he was elected mayor—and was reelected in 2003 and 2005. During his three terms as mayor, he promoted the city’s economic development and advocated for new research technologies and facilities, particularly Gateway Park, which has since become home of the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center.  

In 2006, Murray was elected as lieutenant governor on the winning ticket with Governor Deval Patrick. Among the many councils he has chaired is the STEM Advisory Council, where he has worked to prioritize STEM education as a competitive advantage in the global marketplace. In this role, he has also worked to provide Massachusetts students with real-world STEM experience through public-private partnerships.   

Presented on May 19, 2007, at the 2007 Commencement ceremony. 

Judith Nitsch '75, Hon '15, PE, LEED AP

Founder of Nitsch Engineering, Inc. and the first alumna elected to WPI’s Board of Trustees

After earning a BS in civil engineering at WPI in 1975, Judith Nitsch spent more than 45 years in the field, becoming a registered professional engineer in 27 states and a LEED Accredited Professional. As a civil engineer, she has focused on designing, permitting, and managing projects related to site development and infrastructure, and blazing new trails for women in engineering.

In 1989, at a time when it was highly unusual for a woman to own an engineering firm, she established Nitsch Engineering, Inc. Today, the firm comprises 125 people with three offices in Massachusetts and one in Washington, D.C. Much of the firm’s civil engineering work specializes in designing and consulting for the sustainable aspects of green building projects. 

Also in 1989, Nitsch became the first alumna elected to WPI's Board of Trustees, where she served for 23 years, including 16 years as chair of the Facilities and Campus Infrastructure Committee. She brought a commitment to sustainable development to WPI and oversaw the development and construction of multiple LEED-certified buildings on campus. Legions of students credit her as a thoughtful and active mentor.

She received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2010 and an honorary Doctor of Engineering from WPI in 2015. In recognition of the positive impact she has had on her profession and on her alma mater and its students, Nitsch was inducted in the inaugural class of WPI’s Hall of Luminaries in 2017. 

And so, in recognition of her leadership and impact in support of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, [President Wang] bestow[s] upon Judith Nitsch the Presidential Medal. 

Presented March 22, 2024, at the Inauguration of President Grace J. Wang, PhD.

Duane Pearsall

Inventor of the First Practical Home Smoke Detector

An engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur, Pearsall developed the first practical home smoke detector, which is credited with saving some 50,000 lives from residential fires over the past 30 years. Like many great discoveries, the device came about almost by accident. Pearsall had founded Statitrol Corp. to make static control devices for dark rooms. While testing a prototype, he noticed that smoke from a technician's cigarette would cause a meter that measured the relative concentration of ions would instantly drop to zero. "By accident, we had discovered how to make an ionization smoke detector," he said in 1996.

Pearsall found that a Swiss company had also developed an ionization smoke detector, but it required too much power and too much radioactive material to be practical for use in homes. With the addition of a battery, Pearsall's detector became the first battery-powered home smoke detector listed by both Underwriter's Laboratory and Factory Mutual, and his company grew substantially as smoke detectors became a common fixture in homes everywhere. "It was a source of considerable satisfaction to learn that about then many instances throughout the country in which our devices were credited with saving lives, sometimes of whole families," Pearsall noted.

Pearsall's contributions to fire safety have won him many awards and honors. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the National Small Business Person of the Year award. In 1980, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers recognized him as Fire Protection Man of the Year. Pearsall was a charter member of WPI's Fire Protection Engineering Board of Advisors and has been a great support of the University's fire protection engineering program. The university has honored him with an honorary doctorate and in 1987 named him the first recipient of the Center for Firesafety Studies Herrick Drake Commemorative Award.

For his visionary contributions as an engineer, entrepreneur and technological humanist, WPI is proud to present the WPI Presidential Medal to Deane Pearsall.

Presented April 1, 2004, at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the WPI Center for Firesafety Studies.

Alison Taunton-Rigby

President, Forester Biotech

Alison Taunton-Rigby has been a senior executive in the biotechnology industry for over 25 years. She is currently president of Forester Biotech, an organization that provides science-based product and business development services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She has been president and CEO of several biotechnology companies, including Cambridge Biotech Corporation and Aquila Biopharmaceuticals.

She is a director of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Massachusetts Women's Forum and Synaptic Pharmaceuticals, and is a trustee of the Worchester Foundation for Biomedical Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She is a member of the board of associates at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and a board member of Bentley College Center for Business Ethics. She has testified before Congress on the ethical issues surrounding human cloning.

Presented November 30, 2001 at Imagining the Future.

Richard T. Whitcomb '43

Innovator of super-sonic aircraft design

As an engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, Dr. Richard T. Whitcomb solved a problem that had stood in the way of practical faster-than-sound flight. In 1952, he discovered and later experimentally verified a revolutionary aircraft design concept called the Transonic Area Rule. The rule greatly cut drag at near-sonic speeds by making local reductions in a plane's cross-sectional area. In the late 1960s, he invented the Supercritical Wing. With its unconventional shape-nearly flat on top, and downward sloping near the trailing edge-it enabled many airliners and business jets to either fly close to the speed of sound or realize substantial fuel savings. The Area Rule and the Supercritical Wing have influenced the design of most new aircraft built in the last half century, and both are considered major contributions in advancing the critical goal of maximizing fuel efficiency while improving performance and safety in all aircraft.

Whitcomb's extraordinary contributions to aviation have resulted in numerous awards and honors, including an honorary doctorate from WPI; the National Medal of Science (presented by President Richard Nixon in 1973); the NASA Scientific Achievement Medal, and the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest honor. In 2003, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his development of the supercritical wing.

For his visionary contributions to society, engineering, science and flight, WPI is proud to present the WPI Presidential Medal to Richard Whitcomb.

Presented June 5, 2003, at the Presidential Advisory Council Dinner as part of WPI's celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight.

Lesley Small Zorabedian '72

First woman to earn an undergraduate degree at WPI  

Lesley Small Zorabedian ’72 is honored with the Presidential Medal for her trailblazing efforts to shape the university. As one of the first two women to enroll in undergraduate studies at WPI in 1968, and the first woman to earn a degree in 1972, she overcame countless obstacles—paving the way for future generations of women in STEM.  

The environment on campus and in classrooms was not welcoming to women at the time. There was no on-campus housing for them during that first year, and students and faculty alike were unaccustomed to the presence of women in their classes, as it had been an all-male university until then. Although the career prospects for a female mathematics major were minuscule, Zorabedian persevered.  

Today, WPI’s landscape is entirely different thanks to the courage of Zorabedian and her only female classmate, Jayne Rossetti ’72. Undergraduate students are now almost 50% women. Zorabedian received this medal during the tenure of WPI’s first female president.  

Presented on May 14, 2022, at the 2022 Commencement ceremony.