August 27, 2015 4:00 pm
Updated: August 27, 2015 7:37 pm

‘I’m still in awe’: SMU student meets, discusses research with President Obama


WATCH ABOVE: It’s an opportunity available to very few people — the chance to meet U.S. President Barack Obama. But, a Halifax university student got the chance this month and got to discuss the scientific research he’s been working on at St. Mary’s University. Julia Wong reports.

HALIFAX – Osai Clarke has a summer vacation story that will be tough to beat.

The 28-year-old graduate student at Saint Mary’s University had a private meeting with U.S. President Obama earlier this month, and it’s clear speaking to Clarke that the encounter is still hard to believe.

Clarke is originally from St. Lucia and his mother is the St. Lucian ambassador to the United States. He is currently researching sustainable nanotechnology at SMU.

Three weeks ago, the entire family went to D.C. so Clarke’s mother could formally meet President Obama and hand over her credentials.

“The protocol officer walked us into the Roosevelt Room, where you sit down for refreshments with a few other ambassadors,” he said.

Osai Clarke (second from the left) and his family with President Obama in the Oval Office.

Courtesy/White House

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“One by one, you’re ushered into the Oval Office where you got a chance to speak with President Obama. The ambassadors and their families all had 20 minutes with the president.”

Clarke said the president first spoke with his mother then turned to the rest of the family.

“To tell you the truth, I was in awe I even got the chance to speak to him. I just did the first thing that came to my mind,” he said while laughing.

The first thing that popped to mind was Clarke’s three-minute thesis, a presentation he had given for a competition at Saint Mary’s University. It requires students to present their research succinctly in only three minutes. Clarke’s thesis relates specifically to the production of sustainable plasmonic nanoparticles.

“That was still solid in my mind. These talking points came out very natural because I practiced it so many times before that competition. I had the lines rehearsed and I felt comfortable delivering those lines first to the president,” he said.

Clarke said he and the president then had a conversation for several minutes about sustainability.

“Many people don’t get this opportunity so don’t squander it,” he said about what he was thinking while speaking with Obama.

“He ended up telling me he really loves scientists. He wishes he had pursued science himself, which made me feel really empowered. After a little back-and-forth about his green America talk, the 20 minutes came to an end rather quickly.”

Adam Sarty, the associate dean of science at SMU, said it may be the first time one of the university’s students has met privately with a sitting president.

“To have an individual discussion with the president and to talk about the importance of discovery-based research is really unique,” Sarty said.

“I think it’s amazing. It shows our students, coming from all over the world, come to Saint Mary’s and we never know where they’re going to end up.”

Clarke said he can’t believe he was not only in the company of the U.S. president but had the chance to talk to him about his research.

“I’m still in awe,” he said.

“I felt like no one was unapproachable. I still feel that way. It allows you to feel a level of comfort like no other.”

Clarke plans to pursue a Ph.D. after he completes his master’s degree, and he adds he hopes his encounter with President Obama is not the only time he speaks with a U.S. president.

“I think it’s just one of the first. I would like to keep it that way,” he said with a smile.

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