June 14, 2018

Brian Klotz | Alumni Relations

As part of the Alumni College programming at Brandeis’ inaugural Alumni Weekend, Nobel Laureate Michael Rosbash took to the stage in Spingold Theater to present “The Nobel Experience,” recalling the events surrounding his receipt of that accolade last fall. Rosbash, the Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Professor Emeritus of Biology Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael W. Young of Rockefeller University. The trio were recognized for their groundbreaking discovery of the molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms, the inner biological clock that regulates almost all life on the planet.

In a candid conversation with Vipin Suri, PhD’01, Rosbash spoke about his work leading up to that fateful phone call on October 2, and revealed some of what goes on behind the scenes when one is selected to receive one of the world’s most prestigious awards. The hundreds of alumni in attendance were enraptured, often filling the theater with laughter as Rosbash recounted stories of his Nobel journey. While the discussion was wide-ranging, here are seven things we learned from his talk:

1. There’s a reason they call you at 5:10 a.m. Rosbash joked about having his own circadian rhythm destroyed by the early-morning call from Thomas Perlmann, the secretary-general for the Nobel Assembly and Nobel Committee, but it turns out this is done with good cause. The official announcement in Stockholm comes at 11:30 a.m. Central European Time, which is 5:30 a.m. in Massachusetts. “They want to minimize the chance for a winner to leak any information, so they keep that window very short,” Rosbash explained. “Perlmann told me I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, and I said ‘Who am I going to call at 5:10 in the morning?’”

2. It takes time – even after your discovery. The research cited by the Nobel Committee occurred from 1982 to 1998. The nearly two decade delay in granting the award ensured that it had a sizable impact and was not rendered trivial by subsequent studies. “When you accomplish something scientifically, it has to stand the test of time,” said Rosbash.

3. You get imposter syndrome. “Sitting in those red chairs, it’s a bit overwhelming because you’re saying to yourself, ‘these are the chairs that Albert Einstein and Marie Curie sat in,’” Rosbash shared. In speaking with Brandeis alumnus Rod MacKinnon ’78, H’05, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2003, Rosbash learned he was not alone. “We both had to tell ourselves, ‘I didn’t choose me, they chose me.’”

4. The Nobel Prize ceremony is the Academy Awards of Sweden. “This is a prized event,” said Rosbash. “Everybody in Stockholm is trying to get a ticket.” Since it is also broadcast live on TV throughout the country, those unable to acquire a ticket will often have “shadow banquets” in their homes, in which they dress up and have a fancy dinner with friends while watching.

5. The Nobel banquet requires a certain kind of planning. Following the award ceremony, the 10 science winners attended a 1,300-person banquet in which they sat at the head table with Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf. Before the event, Rosbash explained, “An email arrived that said we should take the opportunity between the ceremony and the banquet to go to the bathroom, because at the banquet, which lasts four-and-a-half to five hours, those at the head table are not allowed to get up when the king is seated.”

6. The fruit fly has won five Nobel Prizes. Rosbash’s was the fifth Nobel Prize for fruit fly research since the first in 1933 by American biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan. In addition to the fact that they are inexpensive and breed quickly, fruit flies are ideal for research because they provide what Rosbash called “a fantastic landscape in which to ask fundamental questions.” He added, “80% of human disease genes are present and functional and perform exactly the same job in fruit flies as in humans.”

7. Scientists aren’t in it to throw out the first pitch at Fenway. While Rosbash did just that in April, receiving what Suri joked is “the highest honor in New England,“ potential fame is not the driving force for those working long nights in the laboratory. “There’s a general misconception about scientists that we’re thinking about awards,” said Rosbash, “but the fact is it’s much more pedestrian than that.” Scientists, he explained, are typically much more worried about publishing their next paper or acquiring grants – or, for physicians, treating their patients – than considering possible accolades. “It never dawned on me that we would win a Nobel Prize for this,” he said.