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Laureate Peter Agre: Why the Nobels Are Important
ST. LOUIS — Chemist Peter Agre won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2003, a recognition of his landmark 1991 discovery of aquaporins, the channels that control water molecule transport through cell membranes in a process essential to all living organisms.
On Friday night [17 February 2006], in a plenary address at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Agre took the audience back to the days when he was still at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, before he’d become vice chancellor for Science and Technology at Duke University Medical Center. He offered a guided tour of his discovery — a little dumb luck, some good advice from a colleague and a lot of hard work, all unraveling the innermost secrets of cell function.
When Agre was nearly done with the account, he summarized the findings as scholars often do in a lecture. He came then to his crowning achievement, and he gave the audience a rare — and very human — insight into an exalted moment.
It was the morning of 8 October 2003.
“I was asleep, 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “The phone rang, and a very serious voice, but polite, asked if I were Professor Peter Agre, and informed me that this was an important telephone call from Stockholm. So I quickly woke up and said: ‘I sure am Peter Agre!’ [Laughter.]
“They told me I would share the prize with Rod MacKinnon, who is a wonderful scientist. [MacKinnon is a Rockefeller University scientist who determined the spatial structure of cell membrane channels that control passage of salts.] I felt like it really gave me some credibility. But I have to admit, even though my wife and I were kind of hugging and cheering, I have to admit I had a real pang of anxiety. Chemistry — just what is it I know about chemistry? I actually got a D in high school chemistry. [Laughter.] My dad, who was a chemistry professor, was ashamed by that. He unfortunately died 10 years before the Nobel.
“Anyway, we were celebrating. My wife called my mother, to let her know I would get to share the Nobel. Now, dad was a Ph.D. chemist, mother was a high school graduate from South Dakota, and they had really different views of the world. But when Mary told Ellen, my mother, that I’d share the Nobel Prize in chemistry, she thought for a moment and, like a good South Dakota farm girl, she said: ‘Well, tell him not to let it go to his head.’ [laughter] Good advice!
[The PowerPoint slide changes to a photo of students crowded around him in a cramped lab area, all obviously happy].
“So when I got to the lab, the young people were all celebrating. We hid the champagne bottles for this picture. The university president even came over to visit me — I had no idea we were such good friends…[laughter]
“I went to the voice mail and it was jammed with requests for interviews from journalists, reporters. And then I came to a familiar voice of one of our colleagues from Norway. And I’ll never forget this. He said: ‘Peter, Peter, we just heard the news! It’s un-be-leeeev-able!’ [Laughter.] And then there was a pause and the voice came back on and said, ‘Oh, no, no, it’s believable — it’s wonderful!’
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“And as I drove home that evening I saw even that news in the neighborhood was getting out. [The PowerPoint slide changes to show a towering sign outside a slightly seedy liquor store, with a letter-board that read: ‘Congrats, Professor Agre.’] It wasn’t even a retail liquor store, it was a discount liquor store! And the implication that I’m their best customer — that’s a real exaggeration.
[The PowerPoint changes to a slide of the Agre family]
“Anyway, I got home and — our three older children are off at college, but our youngest, she was in 9th grade, she’s a very shy kid… and I said, ‘I hope they’re really not pestering you at school and making a big deal out of this.’ And she said the most amazing thing a teenager can tell her dad. She said: ‘Oh no, Daddy, my friends tell me this is so cool!’ But then she cut me right off at the knees. She said: ‘But really famous people are on The Simpsons, and you’re not.’
[The slide changes to the Nobel event, and Agre is standing with his family, holding his medal.]
“So here we are in Stockholm… we had a very interesting time. All the laureates are completely different. But — I think we did agree about one thing: And that’s that the award of the prize to one individual or another individual, well, it’s nice, but it’s not really the important thing.
“I think the important thing with the Nobels is that the whole world will stop for a few days in October, and then again in December, and they’ll be thinking about science — about chemistry, about physics, about medicine and physiology. They’ll also be thinking about literature. And most importantly of all, they’ll be thinking about peace. Because really, without peace, none of these other things are so important.”
Edward W. Lempinen
19 February 2006