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January/February 2008


Lone Star Nobel-lity

Nobel Facts

The Nobel Prize was established in 1901 in the will of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896). Nobel developed a fascination with nitroglycerine and finding practical uses for the explosive material. His invention of dynamite revolutionized the construction industry. It also made him a very wealthy man. In his will he gave most of his money to establish the prizes that honor the most contributions to physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

In 2007, each Nobel Prize came with 10 million Swedish Krona, about $1.5 million.

As of 2007, 797 Nobel Laureates have been named including 20 organizations.

Of those, 34 have been women and include Marie Curie (1903), Mother Teresa (1979) and Pearl Buck (1938).

William Lawrence Bragg was just 25 years old – and the youngest Nobel Laureate (1915) – for his work with X-rays. American Leonid Hurwucz was 90 when he won the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics.

UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas has four Nobel Laureates on its faculty – the most of any medical school in the world.

Harvard University has had 24 winners named for their work at the school. California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena has had 17 Nobel Prize winners pass through its doors.


These Texas-based Nobel Prize winners changed the world

By Tracey Lamphere

While his co-workers vacationed in 1958, a newly hired Texas Instruments engineer named Jack Kilby spent his summer launching a revolution. Fifty years after Kilby unveiled his integrated circuit, it still powers our lives.

Drs. Michael S. Brown and Joseph Goldstein made it their mission to combat the effects of high cholesterol. Their groundbreaking studies revealed how the body metabolizes cholesterol, leading to better cardiovascular health for millions.

Robert F. Curl, Jr., his career shaped by a childhood Christmas present, partnered with Richard Smalley and Harold W. Kroto to unearth carbon’s third molecular form. Together, they opened a promising new branch of chemistry.

Johann Deisenhofer turned his back on farming and unraveled photosynthesis.

These Texas-based visionaries’ research resonated worldwide, earning each of them the Nobel Prize in the sciences. As new Nobel Laureates collected their prizes in Stockholm in December 2007, we were reminded of previous winners and their contributions to science.

Many Texas-based Nobel Laureates continue to teach, inspiring a new generation. They also bring prestige to universities, attracting top-level faculty and students.

The Economics of Research

While it’s difficult to pinpoint just how much economic impact Nobel Laureates have on a university, schools can expect to see a spike in alumni donations when one is present, says Tom Saving, a Texas A&M economics professor.

“From the view of alumni giving, having a Nobel Prize winner is very much like winning a national title in football,” Saving says.

Generally, universities want to attract the best and brightest faculty, whose research might one day win national or international acclaim, Saving says.

Scientific and medical research among universities is big business. For instance, each dollar spent by The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas generates $2.14 for the economy, according to UT Southwestern’ figures. For each $1 million worth of research funded by external sources, 41.6 jobs are generated with a total of about 13,770 jobs so far. Every $1 million of research funding generates $3 million of business activity for the state’s economy, according to figures provided by UT Southwestern.

Science and Service

While Texas has had its share of Nobel Laureates in the science fields, it is also home to a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Norman Borlaug, a distinguished professor at Texas A&M,is credited with saving millions from starvation by developing a dwarf wheat variety. The wheat was more resistant to disease and pests and produced higher yields, helping launch a green revolution in the 1960s.

The award is made to the person who, during the preceding year, "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Borlaug received the prize in 1970.

For more information go to the Nobel Prize Web site.

Norman Borlaug - photo courtesy of Texas A&M University

Quest for a Cure

“Certain people can never rest until they have answers to fundamental questions about the nature of the universe,” says Dr. Brown, a physician, professor and director of the Jonsson Center for Molecular Genetics at the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical Center. “With me, the fascination lies in medicine. That is what keeps me pushing forward. That, and constant pressure from my colleague, professor Goldstein.”

Doctors Brown and Goldstein - photo courtesy of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

As postdoctoral associates at the National Institutes of Health, Brown and Goldstein saw 6– and 8–year-old siblings with high cholesterol and repeated heart attacks. The researchers decided to find the genetic defect’s cause. Their work, which began in the 1970s at UT Southwestern, instigated new treatments for high cholesterol and preventions for atherosclerosis, a disease affecting the arteries. They laid the foundation for cholesterol-reducing medications consumed today by about 36 million Americans.

Brown and Goldstein found that a cell’s surface has receptors for low-density lipoprotein (LDL) – cholesterol-containing particles in the blood. In normal cells, the receptors help metabolize cholesterol.

“Since receiving this award in 1985, Dr. Goldstein and I have conducted studies designed to reveal the ways in which the body controls the conversion of foodstuffs into fat,” Brown says.

The Monolithic Idea

When Jack Kilby joined Texas Instruments (TI) in 1958, what passed for high technology relied on vacuum tubes and individual transistors. Using items on hand, Kilby built the first integrated circuit — the predecessor of the silicon chips found in virtually all modern electrical devices — at TI’s semiconductor lab. (Robert Noyce is recognized for similar work in California at about the same time.)

Jack Kilby (1923 - 2005) photo courtesy Texas Instruments

“In 1958, my goals were simple: to lower the cost, simplify the assembly and make things smaller and more reliable,” Kilby said in his 2000 Nobel Prize acceptance lecture. “Although I do not consider myself responsible for all of the activity that has followed, it has been very satisfying to witness the integrated circuit’s evolution.”

Kilby died in 2005.

Before Kilby, electronic circuits were assembled manually from separate components. “The Monolithic Idea,” as Kilby’s sketches became known, was to create components incorporating multiple transistors on a thin layer of semiconductor material.

Kilby tested his prototype in the lab on Sept. 12, 1958, but met with considerable skepticism. Kilby would joke he was the entertainment at conferences because people laughed, recalls Bob Doering, TI senior fellow and technology strategy manager.

The impact of Kilby’s integrated circuit has affected every facet of industry. Since 1961, the worldwide electronics market has grown from $29 billion to more than $1.4 trillion. While Kilby’s circuit contained one transistor, today TI’s microchips can hold up to a billion.

Rober Curl Jr. - photo courtesy of Rice University

Carbon Copy

Dr. Robert Curl, Jr.’s interest in the sciences began early in life.

“I got a chemistry set for Christmas when I was about 9 years old,” he says. He also credits his San Antonio Thomas Jefferson High School chemistry teacher Lorena Davis for further igniting his interest. In 1996, he, fellow Rice professor Smalley, and Kroto (Sussex, England) received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering fullerenes – a new carbon family. Before that, people believed carbon had two forms: graphite and diamond.

The Buckminsterfullerene, so named and nicknamed the “Buckyball” due to its resemblance to the geodesic dome designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, has 60 carbon atoms arranged in a spherical formation. This discovery spawned a new branch of chemistry that is working to unlock the commercial potential of buckyballs and the related, cylindrical form called the carbon nanotube.

Smalley, who died in 2005, developed a machine that used a pulsed laser to examine atom clusters. Curl says Smalley was confident they would find something during their experiments in September 1985, and they did.

Curl compares researchers to gold prospectors: “They would dream of finding gold in them thar hills.”

During his career, Curl has seen opportunities for budding scientists expand. In the 1940s, science fairs or undergraduate research programs were virtually nonexistent.

“New generations of researchers are always welcome,” he says. “Science is an ongoing process.”

A Molecular Marvel

Instead of running his family’s farm in his native Germany, Johann Deisenhofer tackled science, producing a body of work that Professor Bo G. Malmström of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called a “giant leap in our understanding of fundamental reactions in photosynthesis, the most important chemical reaction in the biosphere of our earth.”

Dr. Johann Deisenhofer - photo courtesy of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

Originally from Zusamaltheim, Germany, Deisenhofer joined UT Southwestern Medical Center as a biochemistry professor in 1988, eight months prior to receiving the Nobel Prize. His research discovered a protein-based structure within cells that plays a crucial role in photosynthesis.

“In my view, scientific research is a deeply cultural activity,” Deisenhofer says. “Every day, we experience the limits of our current knowledge about the world around us. It is a great privilege to be in a position to push back these limits by a little. It is worth every effort.”

Deisenhofer says photosynthesis’ importance and the chance to work with Hartmut Michel, who shared the Nobel with Deisenhofer and Robert Huber, influenced his pursuit of the subject.

“There were many doubters who thought what we attempted to do was impossible,” Deisenhofer says. With increasing activities outside the laboratory, such as travel and lectures, he has stopped working in the lab and now helps young collaborators with advice and directions.

While not all of these Nobel Laureates were based in Texas at the time of their groundbreaking research and discoveries, their presence here now demonstrates the state’s attractiveness to innovative minds.

For more information visit the Nobel Prize Web site. FN

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