In the spotlight, Western High’s ‘most famous alum’ traces road to Stockholm

Starting with a shout-out to his “wonderful high-school biology teacher,” Randy Schekman shared the Nobel Prize spotlight with friends, mentors, colleagues and institutions he credited for laying the groundwork for the 2013 prize in physiology or medicine he shares as of this morning.

Schekman discusses public education, teaching and science (Video produced by Roxanne Makasdjian)

“I’ve had the enormous benefit of investment by the people of the state California and the federal government in my science,” Schekman told a bank of TV cameras, news reporters, friends and well-wishers during a morning  press conference at the campus’s Blum Center. “I’m grateful particularly to California for what it did, starting with Pat Brown Sr., for the tremendous growth in the system of the University of California.”

Schekman thanked by name not only his wife, Nancy Walls, but numerous mentors throughout a decades-long journey that led to the Nobel.

He made a special point of quoting Jack Hoskins, his teacher in Anaheim in the mid-1960s, who emailed this morning upon hearing the news: “Wow, what a trip you’ve taken from high school science fair award to the Nobel Prize…. You have even pushed Tiger Woods aside as Western High School’s most famous alum.”

After taking the 1:30 a.m. call from Stockholm, the first person Schekman called was his 86-year-old father, who has reminded him for years that “time was wasting” if the win were going to come in his lifetime.

His father and mother, who died in 1998, “couldn’t possibly afford” to send him to a private university, Schekman said. But at a time when UC fees were extremely low, they were able to send him and his four siblings to publics. Schekman attended UCLA, and later worked at UC San Diego as a postdoc.

“There’s no prize that calls attention more globally or spectacularly to the importance of path-breaking research than the Nobel,” observed Chancellor Nick Dirks, who introduced Scheckman at the morning event.  He called Schekman’s award – UC Berkeley’s 22nd, and its first in the physiology/medicine category –  “another illustration of the importance of… public research institutions, which do so much to support cutting-edge research for the public good.”

Dirks introducing Schekman

Dirks introduces Schekman, who — by the time of today’s press conference — needed no introduction. (Cathy Cockrell photo)

“We’ve been waiting for this day for about six years,” said Steven Martin, dean of biological sciences in the College of Letters and Science. “In 2007, Jon Stewart announced on The Daily Show that Randy was a candidate for the Nobel Prize. It took about six years to get around to it.”

Martin noted that back in the 1970s,“Everyone thought he was really crazy to study this problem by working on the genetics of yeast. But he turned out to be right.”

Schekman’s discoveries have had “enormous implications for human health” and been a boon to biotech industry, which has used his work to produce genetically engineered insulin and hepatitis B vaccine for human use.

Asking if he considers himself a mentor, Schekman answered with a firm yes, citing his work with undergrads, which he’s come to “treasure,” he said. “It helps me to be able to explain myself.” Those “who don’t teach at institutions with exposure to undergraduates really are at a disadvantage, even for explaining to colleagues,” he added.

Schekman had two bottles of Champagne ready for an afternoon toast in his labs, and about 1,000 emails to answer. Since shortly after his wakeup call, “I’ve been inundated with you folks,” he told journalists. “I’m now at your mercy.”

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