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Wife details Nobel laureate’s passion for science, dislike of limelight and love of cinnamon toast

- By Tracie White

L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service description of photo

Nobel Prize winner Brian Kobilka and his wife, Tong Sun Kobilka, at their home this morning.

The shy son of a baker, Nobel prize winner Brian Kobilka, MD, grew up in a tiny Midwestern town eventually moving to the hallowed halls of Yale Medical School University  where he developed a deep passion for scientific research and working in a lab.

"He doesn't like the limelight," said his wife, Tong Sun Kobilka, MD, a practicing physician and research scientist herself who helps run her husband's lab at Stanford. "He does science for the love of science."

A couple hours after her husband received news of his award, Tong Sun Kobilka described him as a "modest and humble" man. who shuns the limelight and generally likes to be left alone to work in the lab and teach young scientists. As phone calls came in this morning from well-wishers and reporters, he sat in his Palo Alto home at 6:30 a.m. munching on a favorite snack — cinnamon toast. (Tong Sun Kobilka noted that when they travel, she carries packets of sugar and cinnamon and mixes them so he can get his fix.)

"He's a great teacher, very patient — the students and postdocs will tell you," she said. "He has an open door for students and is on a first-name basis. He still does bench work, even the mundane stuff. That way he's familiar with the protocols, and when postdocs have problems he can help them trouble shoot."

Kobilka grew up in Little Falls, Minn., a town of 7,000, where his father owned a bakery.

"You grow up to be a doctor or a teacher there, it's a very Midwestern town," said Tong Sun Kobilka. "When he went to Yale, it was not comfortable for him."

The couple met in 1973 while they were undergraduates at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She was a biology major, he was pre-med. They married in 1978. Soon after he became a postdoctoral scholar at Duke University, and Tong Sun Kobilka began working with him in his lab, as they raised their two young children. Today, their son, Jason, 31, and Megan, 28, live nearby them in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tong Sun Kobilka recalled that her husband wanted to be a practicing physician as an undergraduate, but he had a research paper published early on that whet his appetite for pursuing a life in science. An emphasis on research at Yale, further increased that interest. "He loved pharmacology," she said. "He was very sharp in terms of drug kinetics. He's passionate about what he does. He never thinks of competition. If anyone gets the answer first, that's OK."

The couple moved to Stanford in 1989 when Kobilka was recruited by Richard (Dick) Tsien, DPhil, founder and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology.

"We loved this area, but never thought we could afford it," she said.

Kobilka spends a significant amount of time working to keep his lab financially afloat and applying for grants.  "When his lab was in the red around 2003, 2004, those were hard times," Tong Sun Kobilka said. "He's constantly busy writing grants. I'd like to see him free to work, free from worrying about funding salaries and labs. "

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2022 ISSUE 1

Understanding the world within us

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