‘Not a prank’: St. Paul native lands 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 7, 2013 - 8:39 PM

 

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.”

Major discoveries

Schekman, who started at Berkeley in 1976, and the two other winners were credited with discovering how hormones and enzymes are transported within cells.

Those discoveries, starting in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually allowed pharmaceutical companies to use the information to produce mass quantities of insulin and vaccines, among other medical uses.

Today, Schekman said, one-third of the world supply of human insulin is produced with this technique.

But Schekman readily admits that he was not motivated by the commercial uses of his work. “We started with no practical application in mind,” he said. But that demonstrates the importance of basic research, which he fears is being diminished and underfunded in the ­current political environment.

Schekman, the eldest of five children, said he vividly remembers listening to the radio at his Minneapolis home when Sputnik, the Soviet satellite, was launched in 1957. The event was a turning point in the Cold War, he noted, sparking a huge American investment in science education. And he was the beneficiary of that, he said.

“Our current Washington climate is so antithetical to that,” he said in an interview. “What we need is another Sputnik … to convince the intransigents in Washington that we’re doing damage to our science infrastructure in this country.”

The three winners will travel to Stockholm in December to receive the award and share the prize money, approximately $1.2 million.

The award for medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes to be named this month. Awards in physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics will follow.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

maura.lerner@startribune.com

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