Robert J. Lefkowitz’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in the Stockholm City Hall, 10 December 2012.
To stand before this assembly as a Nobel Laureate in the midst of these gala and festive surroundings, is simultaneously daunting, exhilarating, empowering, and most of all humbling. It is a remarkable moment, one to be savored. It is also a moment in which to feel a profound sense of gratitude. And on behalf of Brian Kobilka and myself, I would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the Nobel Foundation for making all of this possible, and to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for selecting us as the 2012 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. Our gratitude extends as well, to our collaborators and to the many dozens of students and fellows whose work in our laboratories is also honored by this award. We also thank our families, who are with us today for their unflagging support of our often obsessive involvement with our work, especially our wives Tong Sung Kobilka and Lynn Lefkowitz. Tong Sung is not just Brian’s wife, but she has worked alongside him in the laboratory both as his technical assistant, dating back to his days in my laboratory more than 25 years ago, and for many years as his closest colleague and cheerleader, especially on his riskiest and most challenging projects.
No doubt, each Laureate’s experience of receiving the Nobel Prize is unique. For me, one of the most poignant aspects relates to sharing this award with a former fellow of mine. I don’t know how often a Nobel Prize is shared by a mentor and former trainee, but perusing the list of recent winners suggests that it is a reasonably common occurrence. This highlights an aspect of science which is very important to both Brian and me, the mentoring of young trainees. I have trained more than 200 students and fellows in my lab over the past 40 years, and a number of mine and Brian’s trainees have traveled to Stockholm to share this experience with us. They are in a very real sense a second family. Many of our trainees are major leaders in our field of science, a source of enormous pride for both of us.
But of course the annual award of the Nobel Prizes has significance that reaches far beyond the individual experiences of the Laureates. For those of us in the sciences, we watch with delight as every October the eyes of the entire world focus, if only transiently, on the power of discoveries in chemistry, physics, medicine, physiology, and economics to shape our lives.. However, as an American Scientist, and now Nobel Laureate, I have never been more aware or more appreciative of this effect of the Prize announcements. We have just had a Presidential election in the United States. One of the fault lines in the campaign was the role that science plays in shaping public policy decisions. A clear anti-science bias was apparent in many who sought the presidential nomination of one of our major political parties. This was manifest as a refusal to accept for example, the theory of evolution, the existence of global warming, much less of the role of humans in this process, the value of vaccines or of embryonic stem cell research. Each of us Laureates aspires in our own small way to do what we can to counter these pernicious anti-scientific trends.
The work for which Brian and I are recognized today is the elucidation of the largest class of cellular receptors. These are the molecules on cells with which hormones, neurotransmitters, and other biologically active molecules interact, and they are the commonest target of therapeutic drugs such as opiates, beta blockers, and antihistamines, to mention just a few.
Our work lies at the ever growing interface of chemistry and biology, a field generally referred to as biochemistry or biological chemistry, which is the Chemistry of living things. In this context, it is of note that Brian and I both began our careers as physicians, and have ultimately traveled a long road to ever more fundamental research, one which has now led us to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. To me it seems very much the fulfillment of an aspiration so beautifully expressed in a line from a poem entitled Ithaca by the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy, which has been taped above my desk for many, many years. It reads, “When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge.”
I can tell you this … it certainly has been so far.
Brian and I thank all of you for celebrating this journey with us.
Watch the live stream of the announcements.