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Obama embraces his inner 'science geek' at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon campuses

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, 3:57 p.m.
President Barack Obama holds up Rowan Wright, 10 mos. after appearing in a panel discussion on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the tech focused Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama holds up Rowan Wright, 10 mos. after appearing in a panel discussion on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the tech focused Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
President Barack Obama holds up Rowan Wright, 10 mos. after appearing in a panel discussion on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama holds up Rowan Wright, 10 mos. after appearing in a panel discussion on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with a robotic arm operated by quadriplegic and brain implant patient Nathan Copeland, during a tour of a robotics and innovation exhibition at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, U.S. October 13, 2016. Through the brain implants, Copeland can experience the sensation of touch and control a remote robotic arm with his brain.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama shakes hands with a robotic arm operated by quadriplegic and brain implant patient Nathan Copeland, during a tour of a robotics and innovation exhibition at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, U.S. October 13, 2016. Through the brain implants, Copeland can experience the sensation of touch and control a remote robotic arm with his brain.
President Barack Obama fist bumps with a robotic arm operated by quadriplegic and brain implant patient Nathan Copeland, during a tour of a robotics and innovation exhibition at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, U.S. October 13, 2016. Through the brain implants, Copeland can experience the sensation of touch and control a remote robotic arm with his brain.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama fist bumps with a robotic arm operated by quadriplegic and brain implant patient Nathan Copeland, during a tour of a robotics and innovation exhibition at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, U.S. October 13, 2016. Through the brain implants, Copeland can experience the sensation of touch and control a remote robotic arm with his brain.
President Barack Obama salutes as he exits Air Force One after arriving at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama salutes as he exits Air Force One after arriving at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Air Force One taxis on the runway at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, when President Barack Obama arrived to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Air Force One taxis on the runway at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, when President Barack Obama arrived to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Allegheny County Executive Tom Fitzgerald (second from left) Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (second from right) and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf watch Air Force One taxis on the runway at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, when President Barack Obama arrived to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Executive Tom Fitzgerald (second from left) Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (second from right) and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf watch Air Force One taxis on the runway at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, when President Barack Obama arrived to participate in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
President Barack Obama jokes with NASA Astronaut Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor, while trying out a flight simulator at the White House Frontiersat the University of Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama jokes with NASA Astronaut Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor, while trying out a flight simulator at the White House Frontiersat the University of Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
SpaceX representative, Kiril (“Kiko”) Dontchev (second from right) shows President Barack Obama the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft with President of Carnegie Mellon University, Subra Suresh (left) and NASA Astronaut Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor (right), while trying out a flight simulator at the Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
SpaceX representative, Kiril (“Kiko”) Dontchev (second from right) shows President Barack Obama the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft with President of Carnegie Mellon University, Subra Suresh (left) and NASA Astronaut Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor (right), while trying out a flight simulator at the Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
President Barack Obama knocks on the fuselage of the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft, which was successfully tested as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the tech focused Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama knocks on the fuselage of the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft, which was successfully tested as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the tech focused Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
A secret service agent is silhouetted while President Barack Obama speaks on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the tech focused Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A secret service agent is silhouetted while President Barack Obama speaks on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the tech focused Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
President Barack Obama participates in a panel on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Shown left to right is Dr. Atul Gawande, President Obama, Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, Dr. Riccardo Sabatini and cellist and composer, Zoë Keating.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
President Barack Obama participates in a panel on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Shown left to right is Dr. Atul Gawande, President Obama, Dr. Kafui Dzirasa, Dr. Riccardo Sabatini and cellist and composer, Zoë Keating.
Former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris meets President Barack Obama after a panel on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris meets President Barack Obama after a panel on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Fans meet President Barack Obama after a panel on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Fans meet President Barack Obama after a panel on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University during the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
The crew of Air Force One prepares for takeoff on the runway at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, after President Barack Obama participated in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The crew of Air Force One prepares for takeoff on the runway at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, after President Barack Obama participated in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
A secret service agent stands in front of Air Force One before takeoff at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, after President Barack Obama participated in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A secret service agent stands in front of Air Force One before takeoff at the Pennsylvania Air National Guard 171st Air Refueling Wing in Coraopolis, after President Barack Obama participated in the White House Frontiers Conference in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Air force one taxis on the runway down runway after the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Air force one taxis on the runway down runway after the White House Frontiers in Oakland, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.

President Barack Obama fist-bumped a robotic hand controlled by a quadriplegic man's mind as if it was his own.

The president shed his suit coat and sat behind the controls of a spaceship simulator.

"Your ride is here, baby," he joked after successfully docking with the International Space Station during the simulation.

Obama launched an autonomous drone that could be used to inspect bridges and other hard to reach places, and he inspected a space capsule.

"You almost want to get in and take off, don't you?" Obama said about the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Obama got a hands-on look at cutting edge science, technology and innovation Thursday as he hosted the first-ever White House Frontiers Conference at University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. He thanked both for turning their Oakland campuses into a "science fiction novel" for the day.

"I confess. I'm a science geek. I'm a nerd," Obama said in an address to the conference. "I don't make any apologies for it. It's cool stuff."

Obama toured an exhibit hall at Pitt's Alumni Hall with university Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. He then went to Carnegie Mellon University and met up with President Subra Suresh to check out self-driving cars and the spacecraft before appearing on stage for his speech.

After his speech, Obama joined a panel on medical innovations. He then disappeared backstage and taped a skit with The Late Show Host Stephen Colbert that will air Monday night, the White House said.

The conference at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh brought together about 100 speakers to discuss topics ranging from health to space exploration.

"Why are we trying to get 100 hospitals to talk to one another? Why aren't we trying to get 100 hospitals to talk to one patient," David Okonkwo, a UPMC neurosurgeon, asked during a panel discussion on the future of health.

Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA, led a discussion about going to Mars, working and living there. Zoë Keating, a cellist, composer and patient advocate, gave a moving performance that pushed the boundaries of music.

Obama used the conference to announce more than $300 million in new funding for science, technology and innovation and new federal initiatives including $70 million for brain research and $165 million in public and private dollars to tackle traffic congestion.

White House officials said they expect momentum from the conference to continue even after Obama leaves Washington in three months. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said much of the president's agenda on science, technology and innovation is, for the most part, nonpartisan and bipartisan in nature. Some aspects, like investments in clean energy, may be a tough sell across the aisle but most are universally favorable, he said.

"It doesn't really matter whether you a republican or democrat, you're generally in favor of advances in biomedicine and public health. There's nobody who doesn't want to cure the diseases of the brain. There's nobody who doesn't want to defeat cancer," Holdren said Wednesday. "There is nobody on either side of the aisle who doesn't want to build the economy with new products, new services and new jobs, so we think a lot of this will continue irrespective of what party is in the White House or what party controls Congress."

Kristie Canegallo, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Implementation, added that the president has pursued advancements in science and technology through building private sector partners outside the government and immune to shifting administrations.

Toward the end of his speech, Obama talked about meeting Nathan Copeland, the quadriplegic man with the robotic hand. Copeland, 30, of Dunbar in Fayette County was paralyzed at age 18 when he broke his neck in a car crash.

A team at Pitt and UPMC built Copeland a robotic hand he can control with his brain. The hand also sends signals back to his brain allow him to feel when people touch and press against it.

The two bumped fists. Obama was amazed.

"That's what science does," Obama said later during his speech. "That's what American innovation can do. Imagine the breakthroughs that are around the corner. Imagine what's possible for Nathan if we keep on pushing the boundries."

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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