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FEATURES: Rational Exuberance
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A chalk-based high-five outside Lefkowitz’s lab on the morning of the Nobel announcement.
An HHMI investigator since 1976, Lefkowitz shared the Nobel with Brian Kobilka of Stanford University School of Medicine, who was a fellow in Lefkowitz’s lab in the 1980s and an HHMI investigator from 1987 to 2003. Two weeks after learning of the award, Lefkowitz spoke to the HHMI Bulletin from his office at Duke University Medical Center.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GET THAT EARLY MORNING CALL FROM STOCKHOLM?
Well, you hear rumors. For years I’d heard that I was in the running, but the talk was always about the prize in Medicine. That award came and went, so on the morning in question it was the last thing on my mind. But they don’t keep you in suspense. You hear a Swedish voice saying they’re calling with some good news. They’re not calling about the weather in Durham!
Freedom to Succeed, Freedom to Fail Robert Lefkowitz reflects on his research and being an HHMI investigator.
There was never a moment when my heart rate jumped, but there was this wonderful feeling of satisfaction and delight. I could see my wife’s eyes opening like saucers, and she was tearing up. It was one of those moments you’ll never forget. There were about 45 minutes between the call and the first news conference. You know it’s happened, nobody else in the world knows about it, and a storm is about to descend. It was surreal and wonderful, sitting there with my wife, drinking coffee, just trying to get our minds around the whole thing. I still haven’t done that.
HOW DID YOU REACT TO HEARING THAT YOUR FORMER STUDENT BRIAN KOBILKA WOULD SHARE THE PRIZE?
I experienced it as being perfect; I cannot tell you how thrilled and proud I am. My 40-year career and his 30-year career tell one smooth, continuous story. Brian left my lab around 1989, and we kept in reasonable touch, as I do with many of my trainees. We talked at intervals about all manner of things, mostly scientific, but two or three years ago we started collaborating again. On October 8, Brian and I Skyped for an hour and a half about a paper we are writing together. Thirty-six hours later we win the Nobel Prize. Back together again, in more ways than one.