Carnegie Mellon University
July 23, 2012

Press Release: Carnegie Mellon’s John Kitchin and Luis von Ahn Earn Presidential Early Career Awards

PECASE Is Highest U.S. Honor for Young Research Scientists

Contacts: Chriss Swaney / 412-268-5776 /
Byron Spice / 412-268-9068 /

John KitchinPITTSBURGH—U.S. President Barack Obama today named Carnegie Mellon University’s John Kitchin and Luis von Ahn recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Kitchin and von Ahn are among 96 award recipients announced by the White House.

“Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people,” President Obama said.  “The impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead.”

Kitchin, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was nominated for the prestigious award by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy for his research efforts in collaboration with the National Energy Technology Lab’s Regional University Alliance (NETL-RUA), an alliance of five universities that conduct fully-integrated basic and applied energy and environmental research.

In this work, Kitchin and his team developed an electrochemical separation method for separating oxygen from air at ambient pressure and temperature. Cheap, efficient oxygen production is critical for several clean energy and CO2 capture technologies of the future. Traditional air separation methods require extreme refrigeration to turn air into liquid that can be distilled, which is very energy intensive. Another alternative uses extremely high temperatures and pressures to selectively drive oxygen through ceramic membranes.

An innovative researcher and educator, Kitchin received the Kun Li Award for Excellence in Education in 2010 and won a five-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010 to develop new materials for producing hydrogen and oxygen from water using electrochemistry.

Kitchin earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from North Carolina State and his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware.

Luis von AhnVon Ahn, the A. Nico Habermann Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, was nominated by the National Science Foundation.

Von Ahn’s research enables humans and computers to work together to solve problems that neither humans nor computers could solve alone. He launched his most recent innovation,, just last month. The free website, which he created with Severin Hacker, a Ph.D. student in computer science at CMU, teaches users a foreign language; as those users practice their new skills, they are translating online texts and thus making the Web accessible to more people worldwide. The site features computer tools that enable these foreign language learners to translate text as well as a professional.

In 2007, von Ahn used his crowdsourcing approach to create the online puzzles known as reCAPTCHAs, which reduce spam and protect websites from automated, malicious programs. When people solve the puzzles, they simultaneously digitize words from pre-computer-age books and periodicals. So far, more than a billion Internet users have solved reCAPTCHA puzzles and millions of books have been made suitable for search and for reading on any digital device.

He also created Games with a Purpose, which harness human gameplay to tackle challenging problems beyond the current capability of computers, such as image recognition.

Von Ahn, earned his doctorate in computer science at Carnegie Mellon in 2005 and joined the faculty of its Computer Science Department in 2006. He currently holds the Habermann Development Chair in Computer Science, which is awarded every three years to a junior faculty member of unusual promise in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science.

He has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, a Packard Fellowship and Sloan Research Fellowship in 2009, and the Association for Computing Machinery’s Grace Murray Hopper Award earlier this year. Last year, Spanish Foreign Policy magazine named him the most influential new thought leader of Latin America and Spain.


CMU's John Kitchin (top) and Luis von Ahn are recipients of the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.