Rancho Santa Fe residents’ support helps Ocean Discovery Institute win Presidential Award for excellence


The White House awarded Ocean Discovery Institute with the Presidential Award for excellence in “Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.” Students Anai Novoa and Ulisses Barraza travelled to Washington, D.C. recently, where they accepted an award from President Obama on behalf of the organization.

Supported largely by Rancho Santa Fe residents, including visionary donors Yvette and Floyd Pickrell, Elizabeth Keadle, Gwendolyn Meyer, Iris Eckstein, and Linda Edwards of the Harriet E. Pfleger Foundation, as well as board member Sean Caddell of Sothebys International Realty in Rancho Santa Fe, Ocean Discovery Institute has for the past 12 years empowered young people from urban and diverse backgrounds to become tomorrow’s scientific leaders. Its programs, which are tuition-free and serve City Heights, a diverse and economically disadvantaged neighborhood in San Diego, enable young people to work toward protecting our oceans and natural environment, improve the health of communities, and strengthen quality of life.

The Presidential Award is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government for efforts that advance the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. Ocean Discovery Institute is one of only three organizations in the U.S. to receive the 2010 award and the only organization in San Diego to have received this honor.

In addition to participating in the award ceremony, Novoa and Barraza, plus three leaders of the organization, participated in a series of activities organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. Discussions about engaging the nation’s “untapped talent pool” in underserved communities were led by Dr. Gates, a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and Dr. Monteiro, associate director of The White House Office of Public Engagement, among others.

“I was surprised by how much attention there is at a national level to develop science leadership in my generation. Now I understand how great of a responsibility I have to contribute to our nation as an innovator and problem solver,” said Ulisses Barazza, who is currently studying chemical engineering at UCLA. “Seeing The White House was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I also had a blast in the museums and I would love to come back here.”

Barraza joined Ocean Discovery Institute in fifth grade, with a passion for science and incredible potential, but lacking academic achievement. Through continued opportunities during middle and high school, Barraza developed a deep interest in becoming an engineer. Ocean Discovery Institute provided support services that empowered Barraza to translate his interest in science into success in the classroom, increasing his GPA from a 2.3 to a 3.8. Barraza realized the importance of this transformation process and became determined to help others receive this opportunity. He participated in several of Ocean Discovery Institute’s programs, first as a mentee, and then as a mentor for younger students. Barraza is now a junior at UCLA, pursuing a degree in chemical engineering with the dream of becoming a leader in the sciences.

“Through their commitment to education and innovation, these individuals and organizations are playing a crucial role in the development of our 21st century workforce,” President Obama said. “Our Nation owes them a debt of gratitude for helping ensure that America remains the global leader in science and engineering for years to come.”

“From the moment I became part of Ocean Discovery Institute, mentoring was a critical part of my development as a person and a scientist,” said Anai Novoa, who is currently studying biology at UC Santa Barbara. “Thanks to my mentor, Ocean Discovery Institute’s Science Director and University of San Diego Professor, Dr. Drew Talley, I am now pursuing my dream to further my research in biology. Along with my research, I will continue serving as a minority, female scientific mentor for inner-city students.”

Novoa joined Ocean Discovery Institute as a freshman in high school, when college only seemed like an illusion. She was introduced to science by her mentor with Ocean Discovery Institute, where she discovered an immediate passion for research. Since then, she has studied the behavior of sea lions on an island in Mexico, ecology in Chesapeake Bay, and marine biotechnology in a university lab. Today, she is the first in her family to attend college. As a senior at UC Santa Barbara, Novoa is applying for PhD programs to continue her pathway to becoming a scientific leader.

Along with the award, Ocean Discovery Institute will receive $25,000 from the National Science Foundation. Funding will be used to further advance mentoring efforts, which includes the development of a “scientist corps” to provide ongoing mentorship for students as they progress from middle school to high school, and on to college and careers.

“We are so honored and proud that our students have demonstrated the passion, perseverance, and achievements necessary to earn this recognition,” said Ocean Discovery Institute Executive Director, Shara Fisler. “Standing today in the Oval Office with President Obama, I was overcome by the realization that our young people are true examples of the American Dream.”

Ted Griswold, member of Ocean Discovery Institute’s Board of Directors and event participant, said, “As scientists we’ve had rare opportunities to swim with endangered species, like the whale shark. But while there may be only hundreds of an endangered species left in the world, there have been less than fifty American presidents. Being honored by one of them is truly an amazing experience.”