Transcript from an interview with Randy W. Schekman

Interview with Randy W. Schekman on 6 December 2013, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

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

Randy Schekman: My work involves studying how protein molecules, which are the machines that operate life, how some of them are shipped outside of a cell, Almost all the cells in our body produce most of the proteins that act inside the cell and do the chemistry of life, but about 10% of the proteins on average are special proteins that have to be incapsulated and then sent by export out of the cell and these are proteins that everyone knows about, insulin, growth factors , hormones, all of the proteins in your blood are actually manufactured inside of a cell and then have a special machinery for their export. This pathway was first understood by using the electron microscope to peer inside of a human pancreatic cell and the Nobel Prize in 1974 was given to a pioneer by name of George Palade who understood how the machinery inside of the cells conveyed molecules outside of the cell. What he didn’t understand, because of the technics available at the time, was how these machines operate.

When I started my career at Berkeley I chose to study baker’s yeast which is not a traditional system to evaluate protein secretion but they still, that’s how they grow and divide, they actually secret and assemble their membrane using this process and secretion. My first graduate student, one of my first students, Peter Novick and I developed a genetic approach that allowed us to isolate mutations that cripple this process and when we did so we were able to see that these cells use a process that’s essentially the same as human cells and as a result the biotechnology industry was able using yeast as a vehicle for the production of useful human proteins in fact. One third of the world supply of human insulin is made secretion and yeast so we what we did which was just very basic turned out to have quite practical application.

What brought you to science?

Randy Schekman: My dad was an engineer so there was some interest in science. My own interest developed when I was very young. I had a toy microscope and I was fascinated with life forms that I could see in pond scum. I saved up my money and I brought a professional microscope when I was a young teenager and I have actually just today donated that microscope to the Nobel Museum. It’s really very important in my early development of an interest in microbiology and that just sort of naturally evolved and when I got to university I continued to study viruses and microorganisms and that interest has continued to this day.

How did you learn that you had been awarded the Nobel Prize?

Randy Schekman: At 01.20 in the morning on October 7 I was fast asleep. The phone rang, I am not sure I heard it, my wife yelled out: “This is it!” so I stumbled out of bed, still half asleep, got to the phone and I think I was trembling at this point, but I am pretty sure I knew what it was, and I was greeted by a nice Swedish accent on the other side, Göran Hansson. At that point I think I said: “Oh my god” and then he assured me after congratulating me that it was not a hoax and then the fog lifted so I sort of decided how I had to proceed for the next hour or so before the press conference. The first person I called was my father, 86 years old, who has been hopeful for years about this, so he was ecstatic. I called my kids, I called my best friend and then I called the press officer at Berkeley because I was warned years ago that I had do this and as result there were two press officers in my home at 02.30 in the morning lining up the TV-camera crews and since then my life has not been the same.

Who is your role model, and why?

Randy Schekman: I had many people who were inspiring models, two of them stand out though, one was my graduate adviser Arthur Kornberg who had the very highest standards in science and scholarship of anyone that I had ever met, really rigorous, very demanding, tough guy, but I learnt I great deal from him how to do science. And at a very different level, another great scientist, Daniel Koshland was the chairman of the biochemistry department at Berkeley when I was hired as a beginning faculty member. He had in additional to great scientific qualities a concern for science as a leader of scientists. He was chairman of the department, he was very collegial, concerned about promoting the university and promoting public higher education and I have taken his example in doing the many other things that I do. I value him as highly as I value what I learnt from Kornberg. He was the editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, then he became the editor of Science magazine and I followed in his footsteps. I was for five years the editor in chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy, but then more recently I have taken on a new role as an editor of a new online journal called e-Life which is journal sponsored by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust and Max Planck Society. We feel very strongly that there’s a need for another journal at the very high end where the decisions are made by active scientists and where the limitations impose by the print model do not apply so we accept papers and publish full length papers and we don’t have artificial restrictions based on some feather fashion so this is a journal that I am promoting. Actually, from here in Stockholm I will be speaking to journalists about his.

Have you ever had an eureka moment?

Randy Schekman: There is a eureka moment that happened early on in the work that Novick and I were doing. He isolated the first mutant and he could see using simple assays that the enzymes that normally are secreted outside of the yeast cell in this mutant now build up inside the cell, but the most dramatic moment came when he looked, using the electron microscope, at sections of this cell. He called excitedly up to my office from down in the basement where the electron microscope was and I went down and I had a look and it was revelation to see a cell that ordinarily has only a sort of sparse collection of organelles but which instead in this mutant had, it was just dying of overload of the vesicles that were being produced, but couldn’t be delivered to the cell surface and so the cell has just accumulates lots of vesicles and that image stands in my mind as really the beginning of my career and I knew from that moment that I would be consumed for at least the next 20 years trying to figure it all out, so that was really a lucky break.

Do you know how you are going to spend your Nobel Prize money?

Randy Schekman: Unfortunately in my lifetime the funding of public higher education has gone down dramatically so for instance when I was a university student at UCLA I could work a summer job and pay fees and room and board and books for the rest of the year. My father had five kids and they all went to public institutions; he never had to pay anything. Now in US students have to assume the responsibility for their higher education themselves. They go into tremendous debt, there’s a trillion-dollar debt just owed to educational institutions in the US that just didn’t exist when I was growing up. I think this is a wholesale change in the political atmosphere that is I think really damaging, so I feel very strongly about this and as the result, the one action that I could do is that I donated my Nobel Prize money for the creation of an endowed chair at my institution so we can be as competitive as the private institutions and brining the best young scholars to Berkeley.

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