Telephone interview, October 2021
“Let me just finish pouring some water into my coffee maker, because that’s going to be essential!”
Telephone interview with David Julius following the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on 4 October 2021. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
Turning to some natural product pharmacology was one key to David Julius’ success in unlocking the mysteries of how we sense temperature. As he describes in this brief interview, news that Stockholm was calling reached him in a rather roundabout route in the middle of the night, via a call from his sister-in-law and then a message sent to his wife, Holly Ingraham. Here, to the backdrop of making coffee to help prepare for the busy day ahead, he talks about the possibilities arising from his discoveries, what great scientists taught him about the best way to approach research, and what his mother said when she heard the news!
Adam Smith: Sorry to call so early. My name is Adam Smith, calling from Nobelprize.org in Stockholm, and I wondered whether it’s possible to speak to David Julius?
Holly Ingraham: Yes, yes, yes, you guys have a number that will get a hold of him, okay, here he is. [Laughs]
David Julius: Hello, good morning, or afternoon.
AS: Yes, very much morning for you.
AS: My name is Adam Smith, I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, and we have this tradition of recording just very short interviews with new laureates, would you mind speaking?
DJ: Okay. No, let me just finish pouring some water into my coffee maker, because that’s going to be essential. And then I’ll be with you. Okay, alright, I’m good.
AS: [Laughs] That is the tip that’s surely passed from laureate to laureate – you need coffee to survive this day.
DJ: Coffee. [Laughs] Exactly! Oh my goodness.
AS: So how did the news actually reach you?
DJ: Well it was actually quite strange. I was nicely asleep and my phone, which I had by my bed going ‘rrrrrr’, so I look at the you know ‘what’s this all about?’ dinging, and there’s a text in there from my sister-in-law who lives in California, in Santa Cruz, and she says, let’s see, I’ll look at the text, she says, I thought it was some kind of a prank, anyway it said, I don’t know, it’s buried back here now, I get so many texts. But it said something like ‘someone’s been trying to reach you by the name of Thomas Perlmann, and I didn’t want to give him your phone number, so… but here’s his phone number’. And she said, ‘I looked him up on the web, he seems like a reasonable guy’ or something like that. Anyway, so, then I said ‘okay, well then…’ It came on my wife’s phone too so she kind of woke up. And I said ‘what do you think about this’. So she called and he said, ‘I’ve been trying to get a hold of David, so then I spoke to him, and he said ‘I have about three minutes and I’m so happy to talk to you but I now have to go out and do the announcements, so call me back in an hour’. So I have to call him back in, you know, 20 minutes. Anyway, so that’s how it happened.
AS: That’s an absolutely marvellous story, and how wonderful to have two gatekeepers protecting you – your sister and your wife.
AS: A hard man to reach. But how wonderful. So once the news had got to you, what was the first thing you did?
DJ: Well, you know… Yeah I can’t tell you how… ‘It’s a prank, don’t call Thomas’. Anyway, oh then Thomas said, ‘You should go to the YouTube and watch the announcement’. So that’s the first thing I did, sat here in the kitchen and watched the announcement. Yeah… and then… and then I made a couple of phone calls to some close colleagues, or texts, and by that time, you know, I was… my phone was blowing up as they say, so I haven’t had much time to do much else. I talked to my mom, that’s very important.
AS: Yeah, indeed. What did she say?
DJ: She’s like overwhelmed, you know. ‘This is just unbelievable,’ she said, ‘but, you know, you work so hard, you deserve it!’
AS: Good, she’s behaving exactly as a mother should do, fantastic, yes.
DJ: Exactly, right. So she’s very proud, and she’s probably a little bit in shock, as we all are. And then my brother called me, and you know, so it’s been an exciting hour or so.
AS: Sounds wild and lovely. Talking of gatekeepers, it’s just extraordinary that you’ve discovered these gatekeepers for temperature sensing, which everybody, kind of, for eons has taken for granted, we can sense temperature, but we never knew how, until now.
AS: So, the question is, how come you were able to get there? How come you identified the right question?
DJ: Oh, well first of all, I like what you said. It’s actually true that, you know, and it’s true for many of our senses but maybe more so for touch and pain, we experience it but we take it for granted, you know, in terms of… mechanistically. But the reason that we were able to do it is because we started looking at the natural world, in terms of natural products, and we asked how things that tickle our pain sensors work. You know, chemicals from plants that are used to… presumably for them to defend themselves, and so we sort of, kind of, did an end run around the problem, by turning to some natural product pharmacology, and that’s how we did it.
AS: That’s a… there’s a nice message in there, really, that turning to nature is always a good thing, especially in these days of kind of recognition of the importance of nurturing the planet.
DJ: That’s right, yep. Keeping our different species going and, you know, when you think about how many… when you think about how many drugs were discovered or derived from natural products, it’s really pretty astounding, so… and that’s certainly true in the pain world, you know, aspirin comes from willow bark, morphine comes from the opium poppy, but this extends to all facets of medicine, and so keeping those sources of natural products around is really critical.
AS: And these discoveries open up the possibility of new treatments for pain which are so desperately needed.
DJ: Yeah, so that’s the hope. You know, molecules we discovered, but also, you know other people have discovered over the years, since molecular biology’s really made inroads into that problem, will reveal all these new targets for, you know, non-opioid-based mechanisms for dealing with pain.
DJ: I did, yeah. That’s true.
AS: What did hanging out with these Nobel Prize laureates teach you about how to approach research?
DJ: And I should also say when I worked with Randy I had a co-mentor who I worked very closely with, Jeremy Thorner, who’s not a Nobel Laureate but a superb scientist.
DJ: And what I learnt from all these guys was, well of course I worked with them long before they got their Nobel Prizes but, you know, they’re all unbelievably curious, that’s the main thing. And rigorous, you know, and they’re always… they have so much energy, you know, all those people. They’re always intensely, you know, with their groups, interacting with their groups, encouraging them to ask difficult questions. You know ,you just sort of get a sense when you’re with those people where the bar should be in terms of doing science. And really, sort of, you know, investing yourself in it, so I guess that’s kind of what drew me to them in the first place, but, somehow, I figured that out even when I was young. But you know they have an intensity and a curiosity that’s just really special.
AS: Wonderful, thank you very much indeed. Well, I should let you get to the coffee and to the rest of the day which is just going to be mad.
DJ: Thank you.
AS: Well, thank you, it’s been so lovely speaking to you.
DJ: Thank you Adam, thank you very much.
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Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.