Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of the USC Science Technology and Research Program, was presented with the prestigious 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal by President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House on Aug. 4.
“What unites these citizens – what makes them special – is the determination they share to find a wrong and right it; to see a need and meet it; to recognize when others are suffering and take it upon themselves to make a difference,” said President Obama at the ceremony.
Considered among the nation’s highest civilian awards, the Presidential Citizens Medal recognizes citizens who have performed exemplary deeds of service for the nation. Twelve other citizens were honored along with Brinton, having been chosen from a pool of some 6,000 applicants.
Brinton was recognized for work in improving science and technology education for students in Los Angeles through the USC Science Technology and Research program, known as STAR, for the last 22 years. The program provides elementary, middle and high school students and their teachers with unique access and tools that are structured to engage the students in science.
“I am very grateful for this honor,” Brinton said. “And I especially want to thank USC President Nikias, President Emeritus Steven Sample and School of Pharmacy Dean R. Pete Vanderveen for their persistent support of this program and its outreach into our community.”
A cornerstone of the program is the opportunity for high school students to become working members of research teams in labs throughout USC.
As an embedded portion of their secondary school curriculum, these students are in the lab daily, conducting experiments, using research technologies and even working on journal articles. Ultimately, the experience gives these students a high-level science background, which gives them stellar experiential training when applying to colleges and, in many, igniting a lifelong interest in science and in mentoring future generations.
Emmi Oji, a STAR graduate who is now a physician, said: “As a STAR student, I learned to work not according to the clock but according to what needed to be done to succeed. I recall asking myself why I was in a research laboratory working on assays until 3 a.m., while my fellow high school students where playing or sleeping. However, I learned that a very important part of being a caring and successful physician is working without a timetable until the work is complete.”
While Brinton has been a stalwart director of STAR, she also runs an impressive research enterprise at the School of Pharmacy, where she holds the R. Pete Vanderveen Chair in Therapeutic Discovery and Development. Her work focuses on neurodegeneration, with an emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, a compound to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease discovered in her lab was funded for a clinical trial by the National Institutes of Health.
The STAR program has served thousands of minority and disadvantaged children in the Los Angeles area over the past two decades. Those who went through the secondary school lab experience have had a 100 percent rate of attending and completing college. Many of the students who participate in the program are the first in their families to attend college.
Brinton attended the White House ceremony with family members, including husband Theodore Berger, who holds the David Packard Chair in Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and is a STAR mentor.
Other USC faculty mentors in the STAR program include Ronald Alkana and Nouri Neamati from the School of Pharmacy; Margarita Zeichner-David from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC; and James Knowles, Austin Mircheff, Carlos Pato and Michelle Pato of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. In addition, graduate students and postdoctoral students working at these schools have contributed greatly to STAR students over the years of the program.
Joseph Cocozza coordinates the STAR program at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles. The other STAR school in Los Angeles is Murchison Elementary School.
The STAR program has been supported by a USC Neighborhood Outreach grant funded by the Good Neighbors Campaign and by the Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation.
For more information about the USC STAR program, visit
For more information about the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal, go to
For a Roberta Diaz Brinton interview, visit
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