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Reflecting on Nobel Prize winners

By Polina Potochevska and Sara McCrea

Section: Features

December 1, 2017

With the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Brandeis professor Michael Rosbash (BIOL) and professor emeritus of biology Jeffrey Hall for their work on circadian rhythms, The Brandeis Hoot explored other members of the Brandeis community who have won Nobel Prizes in the past for their revolutionary work in their field, as mentioned in President Liebowitz’s email to students on Oct. 2. Two such members include Saul Bellow, a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, and Roderick MacKinnon, a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry.

Saul Bellow: 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature

Saul Bellow served as the Hiatt Visiting Professor of English in 1977. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, and then went on to teach at Brandeis during the fall semester. According to an article written by Laurie Hays of the Harvard Crimson, the chairman of the Brandeis English department of the time, John H. Smith, said that Bellow was given the opportunity to “teach whatever he would like.”

Born in 1915, Bellow was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since author John Steinbeck won the award in 1962. In an article written by The New York Times in 1976, Bellow’s writing style was described as going through two stages, the first “representing an “emancipation” of American writing from the “hard-boiled” but increasingly “routine” style of the 1930’s,” while the second represented Bellow’s “improvement on himself.”

The official Nobel Prize website cited the reason for Bellow’s win as “the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1975 for his work of fiction, “Humboldt’s Gift,” Bellow did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin and served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. A memorable character type in his short stories is the “anti-hero,” unique to Bellow in the way he conveyed their courage which gave the stories their “lasting stature,” according to the New York Times review. While he did not teach for a long time at Brandeis, he surely left an impact.

Roderick MacKinnon: 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

When Roderick MacKinnon, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, transferred to Brandeis for his sophomore year, he had what he described on the official Nobel website as an eye opening experience. “For the first time in my life I was in a seriously intellectual environment. The classes tended to be small, intense and stimulating. I discovered that I had a passion for science, and that I was very good at it,” he wrote for his Nobel biographical.
MacKinnon’s work centered around the structure and ion selectivity of potassium ion channels.

Before his research, the molecular architecture of potassium ion channels was only speculative, but MacKinnon and his colleague Peter Acre were able to determine the three-dimensional structure of the channels and the exact ion selectivity process using X-ray crystallography. MacKinnon is currently a professor of Molecular Neurobiology and Biophysics at Rockefeller University in New York City.

MacKinnon graduated Brandeis in 1978 as a biochemistry major and wrote an honors thesis on calcium transport and the cell membrane as an electrode with Professor Chris Miller as an advisor. In a Brandeis physics class, MacKinnon met Alice Lee, a classmate who would become an organic chemist and MacKinnon’s wife.

Despite Miller’s advice to not pursue medicine, MacKinnon went on from Brandeis to pursue his medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine. However, he ultimately made the difficult decision to follow his passion in scientific research.

He returned to Chris Miller’s lab at Brandeis for his postdoctoral studies, where he conducted biophysical studies on K+ channels. These studies led him to an assistant professorship at Harvard in 1989. But when MacKinnon learned of new methods of protein purification and X-ray crystallography, he gave up his tenured position at Harvard for a position at Rockefeller University, where he conducted the majority of his prize-winning research.

On Nov. 30, President Liebowitz updated students through email about the Nobel ceremony taking place on Sunday, Dec. 10, for Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall. The Brandeis professors will be honored with their Nobel Prizes in Stockholm, Sweden. To celebrate the event, there will be a campus viewing party in Levin Ballroom at 10:30 a.m. with food, giveaways and “plenty of Brandeis pride” according to Liebowitz. The email also included a link to register for the event, which is hosted by the administration and the Student Union.

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