From the Editor

Drescher: For 2012, we honor AIDS fighter, Nobel chemist

jdrescher@newsobserver.comDecember 28, 2012 

2012TARHEELS02-NE-122012-RTW

2012 Tar Heels of the Year, Dr. Robert Lefkowitz (left) and Dr. Myron Cohen photographed on Thursday December 20, 2012 in Durham, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

We named our first Tar Heel of the Year, banker Hugh McColl, in 1997. The honor is an extension of one of our most-loved features, the Tar Heel of the Week, which began in 1950.

After McColl, we named a historian (the late John Hope Franklin of Duke), a minister (the Rev. Franklin Graham), a museum director (Larry Wheeler of the N.C. Museum of Art) and an educator (former UNC system president Molly Broad).

It took us a decade to name a scientist – we honored Joe DeSimone of UNC and N.C. State in 2008.

Now science will get its due again. And again.

That’s because on Sunday we’re naming two Tar Heels of the Year. We’ve done that only once before, in 2006, when we named the married philanthropist team of Ann and Jim Goodnight.

The honorees this year are world-class researchers. They are so good, and their impact across the globe is so great, that we couldn’t pick just one. So we are jointly honoring Dr. Myron Cohen of UNC-Chapel Hill, a leader in the fight against HIV, and Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University, a co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

As you will read Sunday, Cohen, 62, and Lefkowitz, 69, have engaging personalities and emphasize teamwork in their labs. For the first time, we will publish two Tar Heel of the Year profiles on the same day. Staff writer Mandy Locke profiled Cohen and staff writer Jay Price wrote the piece on Lefkowitz.

The scientists’ gregarious personalities were apparent when staff photographer Robert Willett got them together recently for a portrait. Willett set up a makeshift studio in the lower level of a parking deck at Duke University.

These are high-energy, driven and busy men with many demands on their time. Willett was expecting them to give him five minutes, maybe 10. They stayed for nearly a half-hour. “They genuinely enjoyed being with each other,” Willett said.

Price attended the photo shoot and said Cohen and Lefkowitz “instantly started riffing like longtime comedy partners. Robert (Willett) could barely get them to stop for a few seconds to pose.”

The researchers, who have been acquaintances for years, traded rapid-fire quips about their mutual friend, Ralph Snyderman, the former chancellor of health affairs at Duke. Snyderman, a runner who once tried to recruit Cohen, got Cohen and Lefkowitz together for a couple of group runs at conferences decades ago.

Then Cohen did what any good scientist would: He pumped Lefkowitz for details about what it’s like to win the Nobel Prize.

“And the lecture, were you nervous? I mean, it’s the Nobel lecture.”

“I was nervous but I think I did O.K.,” Lefkowitz said. “The whole thing is amazing, they just treat you like royalty.”

“You are royalty,” Cohen replied.

They traded tales about the joys of being honored at mid-court by their institutions’ iconic basketball teams, “a kind of local Nobel,” as Price said.

Recognition, whether in Stockholm or the Dean Dome or Cameron Indoor Stadium, isn’t the motivator, though. The two feel a moral imperative to use their gifts and training to help humankind.

“You don’t do this for awards,” Cohen said.

“We do what we do almost because we have to,” Lefkowitz said.

Scientists across the Triangle are working to solve the greatest problems of our time. The vibrancy of the scientific community is part of what makes this area special.

Cohen and Lefkowitz are two of our most accomplished neighbors. We are honored for them to be our Tar Heels of the Year and hope you enjoy Sunday’s photography and profiles.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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