As a newly minted scientist, Randy Schekman was warned that he was wasting his time.
When he applied for his first research grant, he recalled, “they kind of laughed at my proposal.”
But Schekman, who was born in St. Paul, really wanted to find out how yeast cells work. So he stuck with it.
On Monday, he won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God,’ ” said Schekman, 64, now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Then I went speechless.”
He shares the prize with two other scientists, James Rothman of Yale University and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University, for discoveries that have led to new ways to produce insulin, vaccines and other medical breakthroughs.
Schekman, who lived in the Twin Cities until he was about 10, was jet lagged from a trip to Germany (to pick up another award) when he was awakened at 1:30 a.m. Monday by the phone call from Nobel headquarters in Sweden.
His wife, Nancy Walls, shouted “This is it! This is it!” he said at a news conference a few hours later in Berkeley. “I picked up the phone, I was trembling.” Then he heard “a comforting voice with a Swedish accent” offering congratulations.
After he was assured it “was not a prank call,” he called his 86-year-old father, Alfred, a mechanical engineer. “He’d been waiting for this for years,” said Schekman.
His father, a Minnesota native who now lives in California, said he’s simply ecstatic. “Every October I’d look in the paper, and it wasn’t Randy,” he said of the annual Nobel announcements. “I almost gave up.”
The elder Schekman said his son had an extraordinary fascination with science ever since he was a teenager, and once kept vials of blood in the family refrigerator for experiments.
“My contribution to the Nobel Prize,” Alfred Schekman joked, “is that he took my slide rule when he went to college.”
For the extended family in Minnesota, the Nobel announcement was not entirely unexpected. “He was always a brilliant kid,” said Michael Kopman, a first cousin who lives in Crystal. Their two families grew up a block apart in north Minneapolis.
For years, Kopman said, he had heard rumors that Schekman might win the Nobel Prize, based on his many previous honors, including the prestigious Lasker Award in 2002. “It’s not like we knew it was coming, but there was a lot of indication that it was a good possibility,” Kopman said.
Monday morning, Kopman’s wife, Eileen, was only half-listening to the radio when she heard the news. “I think I screamed,” she said.
“I’ve got tears in my eyes. Obviously it’s been thrilling.”