On October 2, 2006, HHMI investigator Craig Mello got an early-morning phone call that changed the course of his career. Mello, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, had been selected to share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Andrew Fire of Stanford University School of Medicine for their discoveries on how RNAi molecules silence genes. He was 45 years old.
Your HHMI colleague Robert Lefkowitz was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Do you have any advice for him on how to navigate the coming months of publicity?
My first advice would be to just enjoy the time he spends in Stockholm for the award ceremony. It’s amazing the way they celebrate science there. And then, over the next couple of years, I encourage him to really be a spokesperson for science. I think when you win the Nobel Prize it’s as much in recognition of your field as your individual work, and you owe it to the scientific community to go out there and spend time communicating the excitement and the importance of science to the lay public. You finally have a platform where the people in your community will actually listen to what you have to say—so take advantage of it! It’s really fun to be able to say things like “You know, you’re related to the grass that you’re mowing,” to a neighbor and they can’t just laugh at you.
It’s been six years since you were awarded a Nobel. How has the recognition affected your lab work?
Winning the Nobel is life-changing in so many ways and it really is a double-edged sword. It becomes very hard to get anything done in the lab those first few years. After I got the prize I gave 200 lectures over the span of two years. It came out to one every few days; it was absolutely crazy. And I was turning down a lot, too—I could have literally driven across the country stopping in every major city to give a lecture. And so the question becomes, where do you draw the line? You never know, turning just one young mind onto science could ultimately be your biggest contribution to science!
No, I would say it only slowed us down. And that’s why the last few years have been so much fun, getting back into a faster pace of research. We had been interested in this RNAe [RNA-induced epigenetic silencing] story before the prize, and it got sidetracked for a few years. It has been really fun to see the pieces come together and to realize how, once again, we underestimated this little worm’s abilities.
-- Sarah C.P. Williams