Learn more about how the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is decided and awarded in our interview with medicine prize awarder Juleen Zierath.
Can you tell us who you are?
My name is Juleen Zierath and I’m a professor of physiology at Karolinska Institutet. I’m a member of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet – this is the jury for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. I’m also an adjunct member of the Nobel Committee, and this is the working body of the Nobel Assembly. Together we’re doing the work each year on the nominated candidates who come in.
How can I be nominated for the medicine prize?
Every year the Nobel Committee sends out a nomination request to the wider scientific community. What we’re looking for is a nominator to identify one to three individuals, who’ve made a discovery in physiology or medicine. We cannot allow self-nominations. So you can’t nominate yourself, but members of scientific communities, deans of medical schools, former Nobel Prize laureates, and others working in the wider scientific enterprise who received this request can make a nomination.
Can anybody be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?
Yes, but it means that you would have to publish your research in the scientific literature and you have to be nominated. You need to make a discovery in order to be considered for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, but there’s really no distinction based on race, age, sex of the individual, the nationality, or the institution you work for. We consider every nomination every year.
What criteria are you looking for when selecting a Nobel Prize laureate?
Alfred Nobel was very clear in his will when he listed the criteria for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He specifically stated he was looking for a discovery that would have a benefit to humankind so our criteria is very narrow. We’re looking for a discovery that has either opened doors and helped us think about a problem in a new way, or the discovery has changed the way we think about a problem – it’s paradigm shifting. The height of that discovery should really be quite great. It can’t be an invention or an improvement. It has to be a discovery, it has to be of a high distinction, and it has to be a benefit to humankind. In the science prize awarding bodies this has been interpreted to mean that also basic discoveries that extend the horizon of human knowledge in profound ways is always of “benefit to humankind”. Very often those basic discoveries become useful to humankind in more direct ways many years after the award, but at the time we make decisions the immediate practical benefit is sometimes obscure.
Is there an age limit in order to receive a medicine prize?
No. The criteria is that you have to make a discovery. You could have made that discovery at a very early stage in your research career, or you could have made that discovery at a very late stage in your research career. What I would say is often it takes many years before the field recognises that the discovery you’ve made is of a distinction that should be considered for a Nobel Prize. So sometimes you have to be quite patient.
Does a person’s personality affect your decision when awarding a Nobel Prize?
The short answer is no, of course we would like all of our Nobel Prize laureates to be extraordinary mentors and great citizens and role models for the next generations. But our criteria is to focus on the experimental work and the discovery.
What is your favourite part about your role with the Nobel Prize?
Working with the Nobel Prize every year is incredibly rewarding. We have the opportunity to read the nominations of hundreds of individuals each year. We have a chance to learn about their science. Often we’re studying areas of science that we’re not working in ourselves so I can broaden my knowledge base of the broader contributions from the field.
As we get closer every year to the prize, we’re digging much, much deeper into the details of the constellation of candidates that we’re looking at for the prize. That requires quite in-depth analysis. I remember the year that we awarded the prize for the grid cells and the place cells to the Mosers and O’Keefe. I’m not a neurophysiologist so I had to learn a lot about their work, and I found that incredibly rewarding. It’s a real privilege to be on the jury for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Do the nominees know they have been nominated?
Most of what we do is very, very secretive. We work in a big room, we’ve got curtains around the room and we meet in confidence. Individuals who are nominated don’t know they’re nominated, and we send out requests each year to evaluate candidates. The evaluators are not meant to disclose if they’re writing reports for us. By the time we come to the decision, it is a big surprise to the individuals who have been selected for the Nobel Prize that year. And so it’s generally unexpected and it changes their lives.
How do the laureates find out?
Because we’re working in such secrecy, they don’t have any expectation that they’ll receive the prize. So after we’ve taken our decision, on the first Monday of October every year our general secretary Thomas Perlmann will contact these laureates and that’s sometimes the hardest investigation work we have to do! I mean finding their phone numbers, trying to track them down. Many times they’re called in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, but we find them and we give them the happy news. Shortly thereafter we’ll have a press conference and we announce to the world who the laureates are for a particular year. It’s quite exciting and a little stressful at the end to try to track them down.
Can you get a Nobel Prize for the same discovery from both the medicine committee and the chemistry committee? Do the committees talk?
I don’t think that’s ever happened because you can only be awarded for a discovery for one of those prizes. It’s possible that an individual could be nominated for the physics prize, the chemistry prize and the medicine prize, but they would only receive one Nobel Prize. There has to be some degree of dialogue, but I’ll have to be honest, we don’t know who the shortlisted candidates are for the other committees. We all work separately.
How can I be awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine?
My advice would be to make sure you get really fundamental training in physiology or medicine. You clearly must be someone who’s doing research. Alfred Nobel was very clear. You need to make a discovery. You need to break new ground or perform paradigm shifting work. Training is important. So you really want to put yourself in top labs.
You should be curious, you should be unafraid of breaking new ground. You have to be willing to go where no one else has gone and you have to be a bit persistent. It can take decades before your discovery is recognised and awarded. So you have to be patient. It could take 30, 40, 50 years.
And finally I would say, make sure that you have fun, find something you’re passionate about because it will be the thing that drives you. Few people set out in their career to say, ‘I want to receive a Nobel Prize,’ but many people set out in their career to say, ‘I want to make an impact.’
First published September 2021