Interview with Thomas C. Südhof, 6 December 2013, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Could you explain your Nobel Prize awarded work to young students?
Thomas Südhof: To actually explain that one has to sort of introduce the subject in little broader terms. A person, I think most people would agree, is a person because of in the end of a person’s brain, which is where people think, plan and where all perceptions are collected and processed. I am a neuroscientist, I work on how the brain works which is an unbelievable big challenge because it’s a really quite amazing organ. In principle how the brain works is easy enough to explain. Billions and billions of nerve cells that constantly talk to each other and by talking to each other process information and at some point, come to some decision of doing something. What we have been doing over decades now, ever since I started in science, trying to understand how nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other so our contribution to science in a broad sense was to shed light on how a nerve cell speaks to another nerve cell and the way a nerve cell does that is via the specialized connection that is formed between these cells and the brain and that connection is called a synapse. And a synapse transfers information and processes information from one nerve cell to the next. It is a specialized junction between nerve cells that is not only there to relay information but also to change information, its own little nano computer. if you want to call it that. What we have done is to try to understand better how one cell sends out the information to the next cell at the synapse and ideally how also it processes that information and our major contributions I believe was in figuring out the basic fundamental molecular processes that govern this ability of a nerve cell in all brains, in all cells and in all animals.
So basically, the communication is in the brain?
Thomas Südhof: Fundamentally our work deals with trying to understand how brain cells communicate, yes. How exactly, what is the molecular basis, what are the genes, how do they work? What is the atomic structure? How are they regulated? How does their activity effect the overall brain? And how does that change in disease?
What were you doing when you got the message of being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Thomas Südhof: The question of what I was doing when I got the Nobel Prize call, a question that has been asked a thousand times. I think many people have listen to the call that was recorded and which I didn’t know and put on the website and I was driving in the middle of Spain trying to find a small city where I was supposed to go for a conference. Most people who live in the United States, if they have the fortune or luck or both to get such a call, most people are sleeping except if they expect it, and the usual procedure is as I understand, that you first get the call and then you are called and the recording is only done for the time you are called again, so most people are prepared. They know what they are going to do and my co-laureates already had showered when they got the call, so the situation was a little different for me because the first call never reached me. Adam Smith, who is part of Nobel Media I understand, was actually the one who called me and my first thought was quite honestly skeptic, skepticism, I was skeptic about the call, I felt that there was something not quite … It didn’t sound right that somebody with high-English accent would call you about that, so I was a little cautious, I was also a little sleepy because I hadn’t slept the night before of course, I was flying. I had to gather my wits and try to figure out whether that was actually a truthful call or a prank call.
At what point did you realize your work was a breakthrough?
Thomas Südhof: The question of sort of a major discovery point or single event is often asked. Most Nobel Prizes are given, I believe, for technical advances or because such moments are identifiable in the discovery of techniques, monoclonal antibodies, patch clamping and so on. Much fewer Nobel Prizes are actually given for discoveries of how something works, which is because, in my personal view, most discoveries of how something works are not discoveries that can be incapsulated in a single moment. The discoveries that require an incremental advance over many different experiments. If you want to understand the process, you can’t understand it in a single experiment. You have to approach it from many different angles. In my personal case the work that we performed that I think led to this prize was actually work that initiated 25 years ago and there were a lot of important observations, but in the end the promise of these observations only materialized or became more concrete very recently because continuing experiments in our lab backed them up, expanded them, explained them and gave them substance. I actually don’t think that there was any single eureka moment in my career, there were many small eureka moments, but not just one discovery, it’s in fact the whole question I am working on and I think that our work has contributed to understanding a process that involves or necessitates, more than understanding one little thing or one big thing, but understanding really how it works.
Who is your role model, and why?
Thomas Südhof: There is many people who have inspired me during my career. When I grew up I was probably most inspired by some of the teachers who I most admired, like music teachers for example, not science teachers I am afraid. I greatly admire and was tremendously influenced as a role model if you like by my mentors Joe Goldstein and Mike Brown who were my mentors in my post-doctoral training and who are Nobel Laureates. I think I have always admired people who have had the ability yo actually make discoveries that allow us to understand something and not only to discover a new approach and a new technique and I see this with Brown and Goldstein. I can also see that for example in the work that Bert Sakmann did after he won the Nobel Prize, which he won as you probably know for patch clamping, but afterwards he became a true, well actually he developed neuroscience in a way that I found very inspiring and so those are people I could mention here.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Thomas Südhof: The one thing that I always feel I would like to always express is that what I appreciated about the Nobel Prize in particular and what I think is absolutely essential for science, not only science, but for our societies and maybe even for civilization in a broad sense is that science operates purely or should operate purely by the idea of figuring out what the truth is about real things, but it is done by humans and humans are by their very nature never always truthful. I really appreciate about the Nobel Prize that historically it is has always been unbelievably well done, in the sense that the selection was … I can’t say this about my own case, but about previous cases were really based on scholarship and I think that is an enormous achievement. I think that that’s really what constitutes the value of the prize and I can only really congratulate the Nobel, I don’t know actually who does this, but I can only congratulate them on doing such a wonderful job.
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Their work and discoveries range from the formation of black holes and genetic scissors to efforts to combat hunger and develop new auction formats.
See them all presented here.