Interview with James Rothman

“‘Machinery’… that’s exactly how I think about it”

Transcript of the telephone interview with James Rothman following the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 7 October 2013. The interviewer is’s Adam Smith.

[Unknown] Hello.

[Adam Smith] Oh good morning, my name is Adam Smith calling from Nobel Media in Stockholm, would it be possible to speak to James Rothman please?

[U] Yes, it is, just a moment.

[James Rothman] Hello

[AS] Oh good morning, Professor Rothman?

[JR] Speaking.

[AS] My name is Adam Smith calling from Nobel Media in Stockholm, we have a tradition …

[JR] Yes, Göran warned me that you’d be calling (laughs), and he also said you would kind enough to give me ten minutes to take a shower, and I’ve done that, so I’ve collected myself.

[AS] Perfect, gosh. You haven’t had long to do so. What were you doing when the call came from Göran?

[JR] I was sleeping actually, not surprisingly.

[AS] And what was your first thought on hearing the news? 

[JR] At this time, on this day, I was completely shocked and surprised.

[AS] Marvellous, marvellous.

[JR] The truth is that anyone, almost anyone, who receives the Nobel Prize, has some indirect knowledge of one sort or another that they may be a candidate. And so at some level it’s not a complete surprise. But that it actually happens, it’s an out-of-body experience.

[AS] And do you think you’re going to relish the onslaught of press attention that follows this? 

[JR] I’m not … no actually not. But the opportunity to be a spokesman for the field and for medical science, I do welcome that.

[AS] Yes, I imagine, that’s the big opportunity. It really highlights the field you work in, cell biology in general.

[JR] Have you talked to Randy Schekman yet?

[AS] Not yet, no. I just tried calling …

[JR] Actually, I was just on the phone with him, he gave me a call. I want to say that I’m absolutely delighted to share this award with Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof. Absolutely and genuinely delighted.

[AS] Together you are credited with taking the field of vesicle trafficking from a descriptive to a mechanistic level. And the citation describes, it uses the word machinery to describe vesicle traffic. Is that how you think of it, when you think of the cell, moving molecules around in vesicles? Do you think of it as a machine?

[JR] That is a perceptive question. That is exactly how I think about it, machinery. And the reason is that one of the major lessons in all of biochemistry, cell biology and molecular medicine is that when proteins operate at the sub-cellular level they behave in certain way, as if they were mechanical machinery. It’s absolutely fascinating. When you … when we study chemistry, the rules of chemistry, electrons and so on, they operate at an even smaller level of atoms and molecules. But when you get to the sort of level of the nanoscale, you find that these objects start behaving as if they were mechanical. Exactly how I think about it, and always have.

[AS] It’s a beautiful picture.

[JR] My orientation originally was in physics. I was trained as a physicist as a young man. And what so attracted me about molecular biology is the opportunity to find the simplicity through that very simple concept … guided me. Funny you should ask that on the outset. It’s very perceptive of you.

[AS] Thank you, and in a week or two’s time, when things have quietened down, I hope we can have a longer conversation where we can dig into this more. But one question, what gave you the courage to embark on this idea in the first place? Because the initial experiments, it wasn’t clear they’d work at all.

[JR] No I don’t know, you probably have the benefit of the press release?

[AS] Uh-huh.

[JR] Which I do not. So I don’t quite know how the committee has written the story. But yes, in the earlier years when I started this project, at Stanford University, everybody told me it was nuts to go and try to reproduce the complexities, the mysterious complexities that occur in a whole cell, in a cell free extract. And … my courage came from three sources I would say. The first, in all seriousness, was youth. Because there’s a certain arrogance in youth, I don’t if I’d have had the courage to do that today. The second was the fact that, you could in those days, in the United States you could do adventurous things with very little, no more preliminary data, and you can still get support from the NIH to do it. And so in today’s environment I doubt very much I would have had the freedom or the opportunity to truly pursue this. And the third, frankly, was that I was inspired by a man named Arthur Kornberg. And Arthur Kornberg is a name that should come up in your interviews because Randy Schekman was Arthur’s PhD student.

[AS] Indeed, yes.

[JR] And Arthur as you know, unfortunately died a few years ago, was one of the great biochemists of the century, of the 20th century. And he was the reason why I was Stanford in the first place, why I left medical school, and the opportunity to be in his department and have the lab next door. And the reason why Arthur was such an inspiration, is that in his own time he had conquered an unbreakable barrier for enzymology, as he called it, which was the synthesis of DNA, so I frankly got a lot of courage, encouragement from being in that environment and watching what Arthur and the others could do. And that’s … my answer to your question.

[AS] It’s a beautifully succinct answer, thank you very much indeed. Well as I say, I will schedule a longer interview with you in the coming week, but for now, I just should let you get on with what will be an extraordinary day (laughs).

[JR] Good luck with your interviews with the other Laureates today, and I’ll look forward to speaking with you at greater length on another occasion.

[AS] Thank you very much indeed. Pleasure to speak with you, and once again congratulations.

[JR] Thank you so much.

[AS] Thanks. Bye bye.

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MLA style: Interview with James Rothman. Nobel Media AB 2019. Sun. 26 May 2019. <>

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