'It's like some kind of drug'

- By Tracie White

L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service Michael Levitt

Michael Levitt (center) celebrates with members of his department after winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
(High-resolution images for download.)

Dozens of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty members stood, crammed toe-to-toe, in a tiny conference room in the Fairchild Research Building this afternoon, momentarily abandoning microscopes and beakers to witness history first hand.

They had come to honor the Structural Biology Department's much-loved computer geek, whose four decades of research has played a key role in advancing the field.

"It's so moving that you've won," said Joseph Puglisi, PhD, professor and chair of structural biology, turning to speak to the man of the hour, Michael Levitt, PhD. Levitt, professor of structural biology, had found out early this morning that he was a recipient of Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work using powerful computer programs to understand and predict chemical processes.

"You're part of my family. So let's drink to your honor!" Puglisi said.

Levitt stared humbly at his toes as his closest admirers and co-workers cheered heartily, ecstatic grins plastered across their faces, plastic cups of champagne thrust up to the fluorescent lights. Levitt continued to cringe with embarrassment as colleagues sang his praises while cameras clicked.

"What's unique in Michael's approach, he doesn't just make calculations, he does experiments," said Roger Kornberg, PhD, a professor of structural biology and longtime friend of Levitt's who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry himself back in 2006. He stood at his colleague's side offering encouragement and support. But when Kornberg started to talk about his friend's "genius" Levitt, had finally reached his limit for praise and rolled his eyes.

L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service Michael Levitt

Fellow Nobel laureate Roger Kornberg leads a champagne toast to Levitt.
(High-resolution images for download.)

"Well, you were invited to make your own speech," Kornberg said. The crowd laughed. And, Levitt decided to speak up: "How about shut up and drink!"

Kornberg patted his friend on the back and left the party early to return to his own research, while the rest of the crowd swooped in with their own congratulations. Everyone wanted a moment with the maestro, and Levitt did his best to oblige. His wife of 46 years, Rina, also present for the momentous occasion, hugged one person after the other while Levitt slowly made his way through the crowd, smiling, sharing his delight and chomping on chips.

Both Levitt and his wife struggled to find the words to describe their emotions since being awoken by the early morning phone call from Sweden.

"It's like some kind of drug, but I don't know what kind," Levitt said. "But I'm high."

"I feel all floaty," Rina said. "An experience like this is once in a lifetime."

The postdocs in his lab, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, were quick to add to all the praise.

"He's an amazing mentor," said Andrea Scaiewicz, PhD, who laughed with her fellow postdocs that their boss was also "hyper all the time" and was always the first to have the newest computer gadget. "He's a human being first, before a brilliant scientist. He's so human. We're so blessed."

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2023 ISSUE 1

How social factors make or break us