Transcript from an interview with James E. Rothman

Interview with James E. Rothman on 6 December 2013, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Could you explain your Nobel Prize awarded work to young students?

James E. Rothman: To the young teenagers and other students when you study science and you start thinking about the human body. One of first things that you are taught is that the body has a lot of parts, we have our brain, we have our muscles and we have the various parts inside the body, the so-called organs. They teach you a lot about these different parts of the body, but one of the most important things is how the different parts of the body talk to each other. How does the brain talk to the muscle to tell you to move an arm, for example? We call that synaptic or neuronal communication. How does your stomach talk to your pancreas to cause hormones like insulin to control the sugar that you are eating and make sure that the right amount of sugar goes throughout your body and then to your brain so your brain can be thinking in a way because I hope you are right now if you are listening to this. It is those very basic questions of cell to cell communication in the body that professors Südhof, Schekman and I have helped to understand.

What brought you to science?

James E. Rothman: You know there are some scientists who … they sort of get into science accidently, they met somebody, or they saw somebody or whatever their story is. In my case I can’t ever remember not wanting to be a scientist. I think I briefly flirted with the idea of driving a locomotive train when I was probably two or three. I was very fortunate to come from a family that was very focused on education. My father was a doctor in a small town, but education and especially science and medicine were an important part of the sort of family culture and so I also grew up in the United States of America. I was born in 1950, the significance in that was that after world war two America was really at that time seen it was becoming and it already was a very powerful country. It was taking on global responsibilities including scientific research, but also in a major competition with the Soviet Union as everybody knows, the so-called Cold War. When the Soviets developed the nuclear bomb and when they also were the first to put satellites into space, quite frankly it scared the wham out of certainly Americans, but certainly a lot of the world. It caused an energy … the whole enterprise of scientific research especially the physical sciences, but also biomedical sciences got energized. So that’s the environment that I grew up in and in that environment scientists and medical doctors doing research and so on, we are really prized by society. I am not entirely sure that’s so true today, but it was certainly true then and we were seen as assets, very little in the liability call, so you know as a young boy your hero might have been a baseball player, but it might also have been a physicist like Oppenheim or Einstein.

Who is your role model, and why?

James E. Rothman: Sometimes I get asked the question, who is my role model? I guess the answer to that is it probably depends at what age. When I was really young and probably did have role models that affected me, I didn’t know the concept of a role model. I actually think that the role models that we have that really help determine our character. I mean of course there are our parents and our friends, made a family, but I don’t think we really think about that at the time when it has the most effect. Later on in life, as you are an adult, you have your teachers and I have had mine, but I guess I feel like I have had many, not just one and I have been very fortunate for that reason. I think people who are successful in life have the wonderful accident of having had, whether intentional or not, sometimes you find the person who you admire, that’s a skill, but the ability to have that skill to seek out a role model is something that probably is acquired through role models that we don’t seek out.

As a young scientist there was a great biochemist who was very influential to me and also, I have to say when you interview Randy Schekman I am sure you hear the same name. His name was Arthur Kornberg. Arthur Kornberg was one of the great biochemists of the twentieth century, possibly the greatest biochemist of the second half of the twentieth century. He was my hero as I was learning biochemistry and I actually left medical school without finishing my medical doctor’s degree in order to take the opportunity to work in a laboratory next to professor Kornberg. My first job as an independent scientist was as a young professor at Stanford University and Arthur was the chief of the department really and actually was a great inspiration to me. The work that was recognized in this Nobel Prize, my contribution to it, began during that period and I don’t think that I would have been as successful in doing what I did if it were not for the kind of scientific environment that he fostered and the type of science that he represented which we called enzymology. He was without a doubt the master of enzymology of his era and for me to have the opportunity to take that discipline to a new level under the watchful eyes of the master was quite an extraordinary experience. He won the Nobel Prize by the way many years ago and I believe 1959.

At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?

James E. Rothman: It’s always difficult to know at any one time as a basic scientist whether what you are doing at that time is going to have some monumental significance. I am not sure my work has monumental significance, but it certainly has been recognized as having some significance. The thing about basic science is that we any one day, any one experiment you never really know, you try your best every single day and I tell my students every day that you work in the lab is a day that you will never have again so think very carefully to do the most important thing that you can do every day. But the nature of science is such that if you are doing real research on the frontier where nobody has every been, it doesn’t always work. Actually the hardest thing about being a scientist is you have to be prepare to fail most of the time and a Nobel Laurate might be a scientist who fails only 99% of the time, maybe everybody else is a little bit less luckier or whatever fails 99,9% of the time. So by definition what you are doing at any one time, it’s a little hard to know if it’s the most important. On the other hand when it does happen, and it’s happened to me actually twice, I have had very special moments and I kind of understood and everybody around me kind of understood that it was a special moment. We celebrated some of the basic discoveries at the time they were made with my co-workers. With scientists, it’s also very important for students especially, to understand that science these days is not a solo enterprise, it’s the work of a team. It’s students, professors and we all contribute, not everyone gets recognized with the Nobel Prize, but there are a lot of people who contributed.

What were you doing when you got the message of being awarded the Nobel Prize?

James E. Rothman: The experience of getting a telephone call from Stockholm at 04.30 in the morning is absolutely singular. I was of course sleeping when it came, but not for long and woke up rather abruptly. I went to sleep actually quite late the night before and perhaps had a little too much to drink and but my wife Joy of course woke up at the same time and said: “This might be it!” and of course I was thinking the same thing and sure enough it was and there was a voice not entirely unfamiliar to me, professor Hansson, I had met on a couple of meetings, didn’t know him well, but it was wonderful news.

Is basic research important?

James E. Rothman: It’s a terrific honor to be recognized by a Nobel Prize. This year we have three Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine and the emphasis, as the Nobel Committee mentioned in their announcement, is on the physiology, but also the medicine. This is a basic science prize and it recognizes fundamental research whose medical implications are not immediate, they will happen, some of them are already happening, but what it really does is it celebrates the importance of understanding the life process in and of itself. That focus on the importance of fundamental research, in this case in the life sciences, is something that the Nobel Prize contributes importantly to, because oftentimes this type of work goes less noticed than the next momentary medical advance or clinical trial and funding for basic science research around the world is in serious jeopardy, particularly in the United States, but not only in the United States and certain parts of Europe, even here in Sweden. Although there is good funding for basic research, it could be better and so it’s really important that the type of work that we represent and what we represent is just a tip of an iceberg and there are many of tips and it’s great when these tips of the iceberg are recognized from time to time.

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