A Nobel story

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Up four steps, left through the rotunda, up two floors and finally left through a solid oak door is a windowless room at 333 Cedar St. brimming with the buzz of machinery. A shiny, thick black plastic curtain drapes across a dark alcove. Inside, sits a contraption Amanda Foust GRD ’12 has built to study the neuron electrical impulses that initiate our every thought, feeling and movement.

A midsummer’s week in 2011 brought Foust into the company of Nobel Laureates who laid down the foundation of her research.

In 1976, just one floor down from Foust’s lab at the Yale School of Medicine, postdoctoral researcher Erwin Neher had built from scratch a setup that recorded findings which led him to co-win the Nobel Prize with Bert Sakmann.

In the 111-year history of the prize, Yale has been rich with the lore of Nobel laureates. But their journeys from the Elm City to Stockholm are far from predictable. “One never expects to win a Nobel,” George Akerlof ’62, like most laureates, will be quick to dispense. WEEKEND delves into the commonalities that have guided them to achieve the highest of all academic honors, and the aura around the laureates begins to demystify.

Growing up, John Fenn GRD ’40 had a long affair with the Book of Knowledge — a children’s encyclopedia his parents gave him at the age of 8 or 9.

“During the hours that I pored over them, its 20 volumes became a well-worn magic carpet to new and fascinating worlds,” he wrote in his autobiography for the Nobel Prize, published in the “Les Prix Nobel” series.

“I’ve often quipped that ‘I got through college on the Book of Knowledge, a bit of rhyming hyperbole that contains an appreciable kernel of truth.”

Berea College in his hometown in Kentucky passed by without much hardship, but provided much academic influence for Fenn before he stepped onto the “Fifth Avenue Gothic” Yale campus for his Ph.D. in physical chemistry with “the vaguest idea of what graduate study and research were all about.”

On September 1937, he was unceremoniously assigned to his advisor, Gus Akerlof — a mentor with whom Fenn would form a close friendship with throughout his life.

Fenn passed away December 2010.

While the actual research he worked on initially felt less than inspiring, Fenn found the camaraderie of fellow students and faculty to be especially stimulating both in and out of the laboratory.

“I was extremely fond of Gus and most grateful for his always calm demeanor and seeming imperturbability,” he recalled. Fenn would later follow Akerlof to Princeton before returning to Yale as a professor himself in 1967.

In the same way Fenn valued the guidance of his mentor, Dave Bulkley GRD ’13 credits Sterling Professor Thomas Steitz with shaping his own approach to research and science.

“Something I’ve inherited from Tom is that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Bulkley said of his mentor, a 2009 Nobel chemistry winner.

“Rather, it’s the collaborative side of things — tossing around an idea with your friends in lab, or going over the results of one of your experiments with another scientist — that often sparks a good idea and really gets the scientific juices flowing.”

This past summer Bulkley, along with Amanda Foust and Adele Ricciardi MD ’18 GRD ’18, was selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting in Germany for a week of social and academic exchanges with laureates and other promising young researchers from around the world.

Among the laureates they met on the historic resort island of Lindau was biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who often acknowledges the impact mentors have had on her career.

It was not exactly science that first attracted Blackburn to Yale, but it was love and determination to balance her new marriage (to a fellow University of Cambridge lab member) with her scientific aspirations. After her fiancé had been offered a position with biology and history professor William Summers, Blackburn decided to chance a postdoctoral research opportunity in the Elm City.

“Thus it was that love brought me to a most fortunate and influential choice: Joe Gall’s lab at Yale,” she wrote in the 2009 “Les Prix Nobel.”

Under the guidance of MCDB professor Joseph Gall GRD ’52, she worked to uncover the structure of telomeres, the region that prevents chromosomes from breaking apart during replication. Blackburn and her mentor would publish a landmark paper in 1978 on this discovery of telomeres, which later won her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

It was considerably rare for women to be in science research in the 1970s. Even so, Gall fostered a welcoming and encouraging environment for women in the male-dominated world of academia.

“I really do think that the mentor has the power to set the tone in the lab,” Amanda Foust said. ”Even as far as the jokes that they will or will not tell or will or will not laugh at, I think that makes a big difference.”

As a female in the mostly male field of electroneurophysiology, Foust is familiar with navigating the masculine culture that can arise.

While the situation has improved greatly since the generation before, artifacts of the gender climate of prior decades still exist today.

”I don’t think that we have completely let go of the notion that women will work less because they will be having and raising children,” Adele Ricciardi said.

“In many ways, I also think that women have this absurd notion that they need to sacrifice their family life to be successful because if they aren’t putting in that time at work, [then] there may be someone else who is willing to do that.”

If anything, the essence of science seems to be centered around challenges and finding ways to overcome them.

Science for George Akerlof, son of Fenn’s mentor Gus Akerlof, was a “family ideal.” Embarrassed after burning himself blowing glass in his father’s laboratory, he wanted to find a new identity to separate himself from his more scientifically-inclined older brother. Besides, he was convinced that he was more “interested in social things: history and, if children can have such interests, economics.”

While he followed his brother’s footsteps to Yale, Akerlof was intent on pursuing his interests in the humanities. He enrolled in Directed Studies and heeled as a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News before turning his focus to math and economics.

“In the first two years at Yale I mainly worked on the News; in my last two years I was entirely a student,” Akerlof recalled.

(“A lot of what I’m doing is still News work,” he said in a recent interview with the News. “I feel that, in a sense, good economics is just a high level of reporting.”)

In his first year after finishing his Ph.D. at MIT, Akerlof completed his manuscript “The Market of Lemons,” which showed how an imbalance of information between sellers and buyers leads to unfair exchanges in the market.

Shortly after submitting “Lemons” to The American Economics Review, he received notice from the editor that they “did not publish papers on subjects of such triviality.”

Twice again Akerlof would receive the same dismissive response to the 13-page paper that eventually won him a Nobel Prize in 2001.

“How persistent are you supposed to be? I think it’s an important skill to learn when to persist and when to give up,” Akerlof said. “I don’t think it’s something you can formally teach … you have to have a sixth sense.”

Frustration, laureate Erwin Neher said, is part of the business of research.

Now Director Emeritus of the Biophysical Chemistry Department at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Neher said that he still finds himself constantly met with challenges in the laboratory even after more than fifty years in science.

But the most important thing, he said, is a real interest in the subject matter.

“Interest” is perhaps a modest term for what might more emphatically be described as passion. Whether it was Neher or Blackburn or Steitz, there was a clear sense of joy when the Laureates talked about their research at the 61st Lindau Meeting this past summer.

This joyous contagion was not lost on the students — the future faces of science — in attendance.

“It’s so great to see people who are so incredibly fulfilled by what they do and absolutely love it,” Dave Bulkley said on the last day of the weeklong meeting.

Adele Ricciardi agreed: “The biggest thing that I have taken away from all of my mentors is that they get up every morning and do something that they love.”

For Ricciardi, an MD-Ph.D. candidate at the Yale School of Medicine, science is about more than the excitement of discovery; it’s about “discovering something unknown and using it to positively impact someone’s life.”

Perhaps it is the job of scientists to help us blaze through this unknown. Without the guidance of beaten paths, it is how they chose to handle obstacles along the way that orients them to new treasures ahead. And when the accidental comes along on this curiosity-driven adventure, Nobel laureate Avram Hershko says “Grab your luck!” Like him, you just might hit gold.

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