DURHAM — Duke University scientist Robert Lefkowitz was immensely pleased to learn at 5 a.m. Wednesday that the Nobel Prize for chemistry was not awarded to him alone, but shared with another scientist who is his former student.
“I said that was just the best, just perfect,” Lefkowitz said at a news conference about eight hours after he got the congratulatory call from Stockholm.
Nobel committee members who passed around the phone to praise him had not thought to mention, until he asked, that they were bestowing the honor also on Brian Kobilka of Stanford University, who worked under Lefkowitz in the 1980s.
“Anybody who knows me, it’s all about the sharing,” Lefkowitz told reporters.
The Bronx-born cardiologist is revered both for what he has revealed about cell chemistry and how he has mentored more than 200 scientists in his medical research lab since 1973. Kobilka is among scores of protégés who have gone on to run their own labs or to become research administrators at Duke and other institutions across the United States.
Doing Duke proud
“The fact that the other prize today is given to one of your collaborators who you helped train is just perfect because it recognizes you made two contributions,” Duke President Richard Brodhead told Lefkowitz. “One was your discovery, and the second was your discovery of the powers of mentoring – the power of developing the powers of others. What could make a university prouder?”
Sudha Shenoy came to Duke to study under Lefkowitz in 1999 and now runs a medical research lab at the university. She says she tries to give her students and post-doctoral fellows what she got from Lefkowitz.
“He always makes sure you are on the right track,” Shenoy said. “One thing I admire about him is that he is able to get the best out of the best people, and not many people have this quality. We have no idea how he knows which buttons to push.
“I was from an Oriental background, and I was very shy. But I had the talent in me, and Bob fueled it. All the training I got from him has shaped me into the scientist I am today.”
Lefkowitz, 69, is the first person to earn a Nobel for research conducted at Duke. But he is the eighth Nobel laureate from his alma mater, the Bronx High School of Science, and the fifth from a group of eight scientists who worked together in the U.S. Public Health Service in the late 1960s.
He got his medical training at Columbia and Harvard and was dismissive, at first, when Duke Medical Center offered him a job in 1973. But Duke officials met his demands and, even though he had not asked for more money, raised his salary offer from $24,000 to $32,000.
“Which was huge, and I said I didn’t ask for that,” Lefkowitz said. “Duke was not the powerhouse in 1973 that we are today, and it never occurred to me I would be here for my entire career.”
Lefkowitz has five adult children by his first wife, none of them scientists, and five grandchildren. He calls his second wife, Lynn Tilley Lefkowitz, “a Southern gal … whose family has been in Durham since as far back as anybody can remember.”
Lefkowitz became a vegan after undergoing quadruple-bypass heart surgery two decades ago – “That gets your attention,” he said – and keeps in shape with daily workouts on a treadmill.
His best friend is Ralph Snyderman, Duke’s former health affairs chancellor. For three decades, until their joints gave out a few years ago, the two men took long runs around the Duke campus almost every day. Snyderman figures they covered 60,000 miles together, and they had plenty of time to talk.
Now the two men share coffee for a couple of hours every Sunday at the Chapel Hill Whole Foods store.
“We joke that we’re each other’s best psychiatrist,” Snyderman said. “We’ve worked through good times and difficult times together.”
In the lab, colleagues say, Lefkowitz keeps his researchers focused and positive.
“One of his trademarks is that he has contagious enthusiasm,” said Marc Caron, a Duke professor who was one of Lefkowitz’s first two post-doctoral fellows and now runs his own research lab. “He can get just about anybody excited about what they do. That’s a very good trademark for people in science.”
Lee Limbird, who later was Vanderbilt University’s top medical research administrator, also started out with Lefkowitz in the early 1970s.
“He always knew the most important questions to ask,” Limbird said. “He had a joy for the whole process of discovery. And he was characteristically impatient, but in the best possible way. He created this wonderful environment that was fun.”
Lefkowitz said he has always seen his job as “finding out what’s special” about each of the trainees in his lab. In some ways, he said, scientific discovery is secondary.
“What it was really about, day to day, was just sharing the experience of doing the work,” Lefkowitz said. “And somehow the discoveries just sort of flowed from that. So that’s been a great joy to me.”
When he exchanged long-distance congratulations Wednesday with his fellow laureate, Lefkowitz said there would have been no Nobel Prize without the work Kobilka did at Stanford, after he left Duke.
“I said, ‘Brian, there’s no way this would have happened to me if it wasn’t for your work,’ ” Lefkowitz told reporters. “He basically responded to me that, obviously, the reverse is true as well.”