• President Obama and Erika DeBenedictis.
    Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
12/05/2010 08:00:00

Scientific Americans

The scene: The first-ever White House Science Fair.

Among the participants: Caltech freshman Erika DeBenedictis, who had been invited to the October 18 event after winning the top prize in the Intel Science Talent Search as a high-school senior, thanks to her work on a software system to help spacecraft navigate the solar system.

Among the attendees: President Barack Obama, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Mythbusters' Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage.

DeBenedictis—daughter of Caltech alumnus Erik DeBenedictis, BS '78, PhD '83—tells the story of the presidential meeting that almost wasn't.

I was contacted to come to the White House less than a week before the "science fair." The whole event came together very quickly, and when we arrived the projects took up more space than they had anticipated, so five of the projects—including mine—were moved to a different room downstairs. We were told that Obama would go through the room where the majority of the projects were set up, then he would give his speech to the press, and he would leave without seeing our projects.
Obviously this was rather disappointing, so as a consolation prize they let us sit in the front row during his speech, assuming that he would shake the hands of the people in the front row. But when he came in, he didn't shake our hands—he only shook the hands of the students seated behind the podium as his "backdrop." When he finished his speech, he shook all their hands again, and then finally came over to the front row.
As he was shaking my hand, I mentioned that there were more projects set up downstairs and asked if he would go see them; he said he would. This was quite surprising considering that he was already about 45 minutes behind schedule. I went downstairs and managed to catch him and talk about my research for a little bit. It was really cool.

DeBenedictis called the president "impressive" and told a Science News reporter that "he was definitely taller than I thought."

"I was very impressed by Obama, " DeBenedictis says. "The White House Science Fair was definitely his idea, and he seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. He took a lot of time with the students, and was personable and interested in our research. It was quite the experience."

Written by Lori Oliwenstein