Telephone interview with Dr. Richard Axel after the announcement of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine by science writer Joanna Rose, 4 October 2004.
– Hello, is this Richard Axel?
– Yes, it is.
– Hello. My name is Joanna Rose. I am calling from Nobelprize.org, which is the official web site of the Nobel Foundation. May I ask you some questions and congratulate to the Prize?
– Yes, I am still a bit shocked …
– You are?
– … and quite surprised and deeply honoured …
– I understand. You didn’t expect the message tonight?
- No, I did not, and I am in California, and received a phone call from my assistant in New York.
– I understand. So did you just go to sleep?
– I just woke up, three o’clock in the morning.
– What was your first reaction when you heard about the Prize?
– My first reaction was one of surprise, and then that was coupled with joy, and I am really very, very pleased that this work was recognised by so … meaningful a group of people in the world. I think it’s a Prize that reflects not my effort alone, but the efforts of a very large group of students and fellows in my laboratory, working with intensity and excitement on a problem.
– What do you think it will mean for your work now, or for you personally?
– I think that it is important to feel that one’s work is viewed by the rest of the world as having a significance and it will hopefully intensify my efforts.
– I understand also that this is going to be a very long day for you. What are you going to do, do you think?
– First I am going to have a cup of coffee.
– You had no time yet?
– And then I am going to hug my girlfriend and talk with my family and laboratory. I have not yet heard from the Nobel Committee …
– Oh, I see. Do you think this will influence somehow your future work?
– Oh, it can’t help but not influence your work, because it puts your work in the public arena. But I would hope that whatever values and intensity and excitement I brought to my work will just be enhanced by this recognition.
– I understand that the discovery that you got now the Prize for was made in 1991, and I wonder, was this a surprise for you, then?
– In 1991? Yes, in 1991 we, Linda Buck and I, Linda was a fellow in my laboratory, had been searching for the … that recognised odorous … in the environment, and what Linda was able to demonstrate in a very elegant series of experiments, was that perhaps as much as three or five percent of the genes in the genome were dedicated to this function. So fifteen hundred genes were dedicated to this function, which was a surprise but also gave a significant insight into the process of this perceptual system. So the discovery of all of these genes, including receptors, was a surprise and receiving the Nobel Prize for it was also a surprise.
– Life is full of surprises.
– Life is full of good surprises.
– As I understand you are working in two different laboratories now, are you competitors?
– I would say not. We are interested in similar general problems, but take different approaches to those problems, and so we don’t directly compete now. I have emphasized olfaction in two different systems – one, mammals and the second system that’s been fascinating for us is insects. Linda’s work largely involved mammals, and so I don’t think … I don’t feel competitive at all with Linda, and I am trying not to engage in experiments that elicit competition between former student s and fellows in my lab.
– You mentioned that there is a large group of people that are involved. What would be a message from you to students now, whose greatest wish is maybe to win a Nobel Prize, to make a discovery?
– I think the important message, if I were to talk with students, is that the joy of science is in the process, and not in the end. That science is not a move to an end, rather it is a process of discovery, which onto itself should be a meaningful pleasure.
– Before I thank you, I have just a last question: Have you ever visited the Nobel web site, the official one?
– Yes, I have. Should I visit it now?
– Maybe. Then you’ll be convinced about your Prize.
– I have visited it to read William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech.
– Thank you very much, and please have a nice day today.
– Thank you very much. Bye bye.
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