Duke's Bob Lefkowitz wins the Nobel Prize | News Feature | Indy Week

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Duke's Bob Lefkowitz wins the Nobel Prize

At last, a nice guy finishes first



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Lefkowitz almost didn't make it to Duke. He had already committed to practicing medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital of Harvard University after his service commitment. After six months there, "I really missed the lab," Lefkowitz recalls, adding he was "like a junkie who needed a fix."

Meanwhile, 600 miles south in Durham, the medical school at Duke University was flourishing. Dr. Andy Wallace, chief of cardiology, had seen the young Lefkowitz present his receptor studies at an American Heart Association meeting. He and Dr. Jim Wyngaarden, chairman of medicine, they tried to lure Lefkowitz to Duke. However, Harvard had already promised Lefkowitz a faculty position after his cardiology fellowship.

Lefkowitz admits he had no intention of coming to Duke and politely rejected Duke's offer. But Wallace and Wyngaarden rejected Lefkowitz's rejection. Their counteroffer included a $32,000 annual salary—the equivalent of $165,000 today (the initial offer was $24,000)—and an open-ended request for his other needs.

Still thinking Duke wasn't in his future, he responded with "outrageous demands" Lefkowitz says. One of those was that he start as an associate professor with academic tenure, a position that requires rigorous review at seven to 11 years of faculty service. He was just 30, straight out of his fellowship.

"That was the most outrageous demand and that was the one put in there to scotch the whole deal because I didn't want to come," Lefkowitz says. "The whole purpose of my request was to give me a graceful way out because I knew in my head that what I was asking was impossible."

Wyngaarden and Wallace met every demand.

Lefkowitz was dumbfounded. "Duke was a young institution [in 1973]. But it was a decent institution, and the offer was just so non-comparable with what Harvard was offering that I said, 'This is it. I gotta go for it.'"

"But a lot of people said, 'How can you go to Duke?' Even my in-laws at the time." He reproduces the Yiddish accent: "'Whaddaya, crazy? You're at Hawvaad.' But something said, 'Go for this.'"

Lefkowitz credits Wyngaarden with making "a gutsy move." "He had this amazing feel for people right at the beginning of their careers. He had this wonderful ability to pick talent," Lefkowitz says. "It's one thing to hire some famous professor and bring in the talent that way. But that's not what they were doing. They saw a bright young man, who seemed to be starting to make a name for himself, and they placed a bet."

Lefkowitz is so well-loved that it's difficult to locate any detractors, personally or professionally. Snyderman estimates that he and Lefkowitz have spent 10,000 hours together running 60,000 miles—a 10 minute-per-mile pace—sharing their most intimate personal details.

"I cannot recall any time where Bob has said anything mean, prejudicial, ugly about anyone," Snyderman says. "Just never."

Lefkowitz speaks only briefly of his divorce from Arna, the mother of his five children. Asked whether he's paid a price for his career success, Lefkowitz says: "The answer is 'yeah!' But I don't think it has anything to do with science. I mean, I think if you achieve at this level, you pay a price. There are only 24 hours in a day and I don't care whether it's sports or a military career or a career in public service in government."

He adds: "I have a great relationship with all my kids. I was just obsessed with the work."

In the acknowledgement of her book for young adults, Breathing, daughter Cheryl Herbsman thanked her parents collectively, "for giving me permission and freedom to believe in my dreams and for providing me with loving support every step of the way."

Bob remarried in 1991 to Durham native Lynn Tilley. Other than a deluge of speaking requests, Lefkowitz expects the Nobel will cause little change in their lives.

"I'm so busy that, like on a weekend, there's nothing we like better than staying home, maybe watching a movie we've rented from Netflix on a Saturday night or reading."

With the broader public stage afforded as a Nobel laureate, Lefkowitz intimates that he'll be outspoken about anti-scientific influences in U.S. politics.

"One of the fault lines in the [U.S. presidential] campaign was the role that science plays in shaping public policy decisions," he said during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "A clear anti-science bias was apparent in many who sought the presidential nomination of one of our major political parties. This was manifest as a refusal to accept, for example, the theory of evolution, the existence of global warming, much less of the role of humans in this process, the value of vaccines or of embryonic stem cell research. Each of us laureates aspires in our own small way to do what we can to counter these pernicious anti-scientific trends."

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry ruffled the feathers of some traditional chemists who suggested that the collective work of Lefkowitz and Kobilka was better suited for the medicine prize. Although Lefkowitz wasn't personally synthesizing chemicals for his research, he had to use extensive chemical insight for his earlier work. Moreover, Kobilka showed the first atom-by-atom 3-D structure of an adrenergic receptor with its G-protein complex, a chemical milestone using a time-honored technique.

Dr. Derek Lowe, a well-known medicinal chemist and blogger, addressed this issue on the day of the Nobel Prize announcement. "Biology isn't invading chemistry—biology is turning into chemistry," wrote Lowe. "So, my fellow chemists, cheer the hell up already."

In fact, Lefkowitz says he couldn't have won the chemistry prize without Kobilka. "I gotta believe I could've won it in medicine years ago. If I had, Brian never would've shared it. On the other hand, at this point, I don't think I would've gotten it in chemistry if he hadn't gotten the [atom-by-atom] structures."

This interdependence characterizes Lefkowitz's reputation as a dedicated mentor. "When's the last time Bob shook a test tube?" Snyderman asks rhetorically. "He'll joke that he doesn't have a clue about how to do this stuff."

Snyderman calls this relationship "a blessed transaction" between professor and lab members. "These people give him everything they've got. To have trained with Bob in a laboratory, and now to train in a lab with a Nobel laureate, is just fantastic."

Lefkowitz's advice for mentoring extends beyond science. "You can't say to somebody, 'To be successful in science, you have to be able to absorb failure after failure after failure. You have to be persistent. You have to believe in your goals.' Yeah, it's fine to say that. What does it mean? They gotta work with you for three years, they gotta watch you suck it up—failure after failure after failure—they gotta watch you. I mean, that's how you teach. And that's why the training is very much an apprenticeship."

Colleagues and trainees have watched Lefkowitz suck it up for 20 years knowing he was Nobel Prize material, nominated but never selected.

"My best assessment was that I had some enemies somewhere, colleagues, who—they confer broadly about the prize—and I think if somebody damned me, you know, some evaluator who maybe I had crossed swords with at some point ..." he pauses. "Who knows?"

He reflects on being snubbed for the 1994 prize, "I would love to know the story someday."

But Nobel Foundation statutes require that all nominations and committee deliberations remain secret for 50 years.

"I already told my granddaughter, 'When they publish that, I want you to read all the documents and send me an email or a text.'"

Dr. David Kroll is a contributor to the Forbes.com Pharma & Healthcare section and a pharmaceutical chemistry writer at Terra Sigillata, a blog on the Chemical & Engineering News network CENtral Science.

A 20-year academic cancer pharmacology researcher, Kroll is currently director of science communications at the Nature Research Center of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a science writing professor at North Carolina State University.

Correction: This article has been corrected to replace the word 'adrenaline' with 'corticosteroids' in the following paragraph: "ACTH is made in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain and travels to the adrenal glands to prompt them to release corticosteroids when you feel stressed or threatened."

This article appeared in print with the headline "At last, nice guys finish first."

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