Marigold Linton, PhD, grew up in desperate poverty on the Morongo Indian reservation in California. Julio J. Ramirez, PhD, was the son of a single mother struggling to raise two children in a housing project in Bridgeport, Conn. In addition to a relentless drive to succeed, these two psychologists share a common experience: mentors who saw their potential, encouraged them to strive for more and help set them on paths to achievement.

Now, both have returned the favor. Throughout their professional lives, they have been mentoring students, building organizations and encouraging students from underrepresented groups to view a four-year degree as a starting point for a science education.

In recognition of their mentoring, Linton and Ramirez were among the 11 individuals and four organizations who received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring on Jan. 27.

President Barack Obama greets Dr. Marigold Linton (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)Linton, who has directed American Indian outreach at the University of Kansas since 1998, is well-known for boosting the number of Native American students pursuing degrees in science-related fields. She secured more than $18 million in National Institutes of Health grants to build a network of collaborative programs between KU and Haskell Indian Nations University.

Linton also co-founded both the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and the National Indian Education Association.

President Barack Obama greets Dr. Julio J. Ramirez (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)Ramirez, a professor of psychology at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., since 1986, has mentored more than 100 students in research on brain injury. As a national leader in neuroscience education, he also co-founded Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN) in 1991 and served three years as its first president. The group supports the growth and improvement of neuroscience programs at four-year colleges and universities. Working with grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and FUN, Ramirez also started Support of Mentors and Their Students from Underrepresented Minorities, a program that pairs junior faculty at four-year institutions with undergraduate students and gives them $9,000 to support 10 weeks of research.

After receiving the presidential award during a White House ceremony, Linton, Ramirez and the other honorees spent almost a half-hour with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, where they discussed the importance of attracting more young students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, into the scientific disciplines.

Both psychologists came away elated and inspired from the meeting, especially by what they described as Obama’s firm commitment to the role of education in sparking the innovations that will ensure the nation remains strongly competitive in the global economy.

“‘Educate to innovate’ — I walked out of that room with that phrase in my head,” says Ramirez. “He’s fully committed to the role of education in the future of our country.”

Linton stood next to Obama for the group photograph. “I was the envy of everyone because I’m short, and it’s easy to put your arm over my shoulder,” she joked.

The mentor who changed Linton’s life was her eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Adams, who visited Linton’s home on the reservation. That was something a white teacher had never done before, and Linton still remembers the teacher standing in her dirt front yard, talking to her mother. “She just said, ‘Marigold is very, very bright, and you should make sure she goes to college,’” she remembers.

Linton became the first American Indian to leave a California reservation and enter college, attending the University of California, Riverside, and graduating in 1958. She then earned her doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1964.

Ramirez says he had many mentors growing up, but Sister Mary Norbert, his eighth-grade teacher at St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Bridgeport, stands out. As a child, he had always loved science, and while his school offered rigorous instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic, there wasn’t much science. In 1969, the summer of Apollo 11, Sister Norbert allowed him to give a series of presentations to his eighth-grade classmates on the space program. Through the experience, he says, “I discovered that I liked to teach, and it went from liking to loving,” Ramirez says.