Robert Lefkowitz: It was amazing. And then the press corps gave me the nickname the happiest laureate because I was just seem to be having such a good time, which I was.
Natalie von der Lehr: Welcome to the podcast of Curie, an online magazine about research politics by the Swedish Research Council. My name is Natalie von der Lehr, and in this episode I talk to Robert Lefkowitz, professor of medicine and professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Duke University and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Robert Lefkowitz was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2012, together with his former fellow Brian Kobilka for the discovery of the G-coupled protein receptor. In this episode, we will hear more about Robert Lefkowitz’ personal experience of the Nobel Week, his thoughts on science communication and how he ended up being a question on the TV show Jeopardy.
Natalie von der Lehr: Very welcome to Curie and the podcast of Curie. Would you like to introduce yourself a little bit?
Robert Lefkowitz: My name is Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, but everybody calls me Bob. I always tell people that the only person who ever called me Robert was my mother when she was angry at me. As in ”Robert, get in here!”. So I go by Bob. Anyway, I’m a professor of medicine, biochemistry and chemistry at Duke University Medical Center, where I’ve been on the faculty since 1973. That’s a long time. I’m 78 years old. I’m also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The longest serving investigator they’ve had. I’ve been an investigator of HHMI for 45 years and counting. And throughout my career, I have worked on a type of molecule called a receptor. So when I started my work about 50 years ago, the idea that there might be such a thing as receptors was just an idea and a very controversial one that many people didn’t believe in. In the early phases of my career, I developed a whole series of techniques which enabled us to ultimately prove that there was such a thing as receptors and that they were proteins in the cell membrane. We were able to isolate them, determine their structure, figure out how they worked and how they were regulated. Ultimately, the work led to the discovery that there was a huge family of these receptors, probably as many as 800 to a thousand different ones in humans, and they regulate virtually all physiological processes in humans. Now my work carried out over 50 years has always been at a very basic level, not clinical research. Nonetheless, building on our work, others have been able to develop drugs and currently about a third of all FDA approved drugs in the United States, it’s about 700 drugs, are drugs which target this receptor family that we discovered over the years. And so that’s had a huge impact on the current practice of medicine. Anyway, so that’s what I’ve been up to for the last half a century.
Natalie von der Lehr: And in 2012, you were awarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with your colleague and earlier fellow Brian Kobilka also.
Robert Lefkowitz: Correct.
Natalie von der Lehr: We shouldn’t forget to mention that.
Robert Lefkowitz: Yes, absolutely. And that was, of course, the highlight of my career for sure.
Natalie von der Lehr: You have been awarded with a lot of prizes prior to the Nobel Prize. So what is so special about the Nobel?
Robert Lefkowitz: Everybody has their own experience of the Nobel. Mine was kind of a long and tortuous route. I was 69 when I won the prize, but I would say starting about age 50, it started to become clear to a lot of people that the work we had done was sort of a Nobel quality. And of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll ever win the Nobel Prize because there just aren’t enough Nobel Prizes to go around. You got to be lucky on top of everything else. So people started telling me almost 20 years before I won the prize, ”Hey Bob, you’re going to win the prize. It’s just a matter of time”. And then they were saying, ”Well, when are you going to win the Nobel Prize?” And it was just chatter every year. It was even an article in the Durham paper one year when I didn’t win on the front page of the paper that the headline was ”Stockholm calling – not this year. Duke’s best hope for a Nobel Prize. Dr. Robert Lefkowitz disappointed again”. I mean, wow, how many people do you know who make the front page of the paper for not winning the Nobel Prize? Right. Then there were a couple of close misses. You know where people who were in fields that were kind of fairly close to mine, where my work could have easily been included. And still, I wasn’t. So when I finally did win, rather than it being sort of a thing where I jumped up and down, when I got the call, it was more the monkey’s off my back, it finally happened. A quiet sense of relief. There was all that. But then just the whole experience is just so mind bending, you know. In Sweden, there is this enormous respect for intellectual achievement. We don’t have that in the United States. We respect sports. So people who’ve asked me, well, what is it like over there during Nobel week? And I say it’s just the most amazing thing. The closest thing we have, and it’s not a good analogy, but the closest thing we have to in the United States is what’s called Super Bowl Sunday, Super Bowl weekend in February where the two teams compete to be the winner of the professional football tournament, which has been going on all winter. People have Super Bowl parties and dinners, and there’s a lot of good feeling, etc. And the heroes, of course, are the football players. But in Sweden, the heroes are the scientists and the authors. And you really appreciate that, and it’s just, it’s mind bending. We don’t have that over here. And for the whole ten days that we were there, we were on the newspapers every day, on television. The seating plan for the Table of Honor, where we all sit at the Nobel banquet, is published in the paper. People watch it. They have banquets in their own houses. I mean, it’s like amazing and you come home and you just, you know, you have to pinch yourself that you were part of all that. I sat between two princesses at dinner. I spent the entire evening talking with Crown Princess Victoria. I mean, such an interesting person. And then I met her husband, who’s a prince, chatted with the king and queen. I mean, it’s just it’s very much like a fairy tale. And I was pretty much consider myself fortunate that I realized that the the weather in Sweden is quite different from one Nobel week to another. We were treated to nothing but cold and snow, which is just what I wanted. There was heavy snow falling when we got there. In fact, a couple of the laureates were a little late getting in because it’s snowed 10 inches the day we got there, it snowed off and on the whole time, I don’t think temperature ever went above freezing. And it was very much like a fairytale. And on top of all of that, two things stood out. One was that 60 or so of my former trainees on their own expense came to Stockholm just to be there to celebrate together and support Brian and myself, which was amazing. We had a big cocktail reception for them. And then my daughter, Mara, her boyfriend, the two of them were there. All five of my kids were there. He proposed to her right after the Nobel banquet in front of the king and queen and a thousand other guests. He drops to one knee and he proposes marriage to her, and the king is standing, you know, maybe a hundred feet away and watches the whole thing happen. He sends his attaché over, the attache says ”You know, the king wants to know what happened here?” I said ”Well, as you can see, this guy got down on one knee and proposed to my daughter, and she accepted”. So anyway, it was amazing. And then the press corps gave me the nickname ”The Happiest Laureate” because I was just seem to be having such a good time, which I was. So anyway, there are my stories.
Natalie von der Lehr: So what would your advice be now to this year’s laureates?
Robert Lefkowitz: I am hoping so much for them that it’ll be in-person this year, unlike last year. But my only advice is: Throw yourself into it 100 percent. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, except I guess for five people that happened twice. Like Marie Curie. But for everybody else, it’s a once in a lifetime experience and just be there, be present and soak it all up.
Natalie von der Lehr: Do you have any speculations or hopes for this year’s prizes?
Robert Lefkowitz: Yes, absolutely. I am hoping that in a complete divergence from the usual policy where the prizes are awarded to people for work done in the dim past decades ago, that they award the prize in medicine to the two scientists who developed the technology for the mRNA vaccines, which have basically been so amazingly life saving in this pandemic that we’re having. Alfred Nobel, on his will when he established the prizes, said specifically that he wanted these prizes to recognize those scientific contributions, which in the last year have been of greatest benefit to mankind, and this would be such an amazingly apt prize. What a perfect display of what science can do. Of course, in this country, the science has been politicized, unfortunately. I tell a cute story about that in my book ”A Funny thing happened on the way to Stockholm”. At the Nobel banquet, one prize recipient in each category gives a five minute talk. I think they may call it a toast, but it’s really five minutes to talk about whatever, whatever you want to talk about. And so this was in 2012, and I said the following. ”We’ve just had a presidential election.” So this was when Obama had just won. ”We’ve just had a presidential election in the United States. One of the fault lines in the campaign was the role that science plays in shaping public policy decisions. A clear anti-science bias was apparent in many who sought the presidential nomination of one of our major political parties, and this was manifested as a refusal to accept, for example, the theory of evolution, the existence of global warming, much less of the humans in this process and the value of vaccines or of embryonic stem cell research.” So obviously this ante-dated Trump by a good bit. But then I say: ”My speech was well-received by the audience, and as I left the stage, I could hear one of the television commentators providing commentary in an excited half whisper ’That was Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, Nobel laureate in chemistry, who really lit into the Republican Party in his home country’. Of course, I had not said the word Republican in my remarks, and it was only one brief line in an 800 word speech. But nonetheless, this comment ended up generating a fair amount of media attention. But it was funny. I never said Republican, as you heard, I just heard one of our political parties, but he knew exactly who I was talking about.
Natalie von der Lehr: Earlier this year, Robert Lefkowitz published his biography called ”A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stockholm”. The book contains stories from his life as a scientist.
Robert Lefkowitz: As you might have already gleaned from our brief interaction, I’m a bit of a raconteur. I like stories. I like to tell stories. Everything reminds me of a story. And so anybody who’s worked with me has been subjected to my relentless storytelling, perhaps more than they want. And for years, decades, actually, everybody who works with me and many others have said, Bob, you really need to write a book. You really need to write down these stories. And I always put them off, and I don’t think it ever would have happened. But then several years ago, Randy Hall, who’s now a professor of pharmacology at Emory University in Atlanta, he had been a fellow in my lab in the 90s. He’s visiting me, as he did every few years because he is an avid Duke basketball fan, and he had come up to watch a game with me. We were having dinner and I was, of course, regaling him with stories as I do. And he said to me, Bob, look, I know you’re never going to write this book, but how about I make you an offer you can’t refuse? How about I collaborate with you? We’ll talk on the phone once a week for an hour or two. You’ll tell me stories. We’ll try to go chronologically in the different phases of your life. I’ll ask you questions if I don’t understand. We’ll record everything, and then I’ll try to write them up chapter by chapter, send you a rough draft, we edit it. It will go back and forth and we’ll see if we can do this. That’s how it evolved. And were it not for Randy basically stepping up and saying he would do this collaboratively, I really don’t think it would have happened, and it was a lot of fun.
Natalie von der Lehr: It’s the sort of book I would have liked, especially as a child when I was a teenager, when I was a bit geeky, wanting to know more about the scientific world and about the life of scientists.
Robert Lefkowitz: Thank you for saying that. One of my audiences that I had in mind were young people who might aspire to a career in science. When I was a child, also very geeky, I read many books. My favorite genre was what you might call medical or scientific fiction. Novels, where the hero was a scientist or a physician or a physician scientist. There were several titles in that genre, and I loved them. I wish I had a book like this where sort of the protagonist isn’t even a made up character. So anyway, I appreciate your kind words about the book. I think it is something that would be of interest to young people, but also old people who are interested in what it’s like to be both a physician and a scientist.
Natalie von der Lehr: What are your thoughts on science communication? What responsibilities do scientists have to actually communicate and bring across their work and what they do to a wider audience?
Robert Lefkowitz: Yes, this is an excellent question and one that I’ve thought about a lot. I think that both scientists and journalists have big responsibilities in this area. Scientists really do have a responsibility to try to explain what they’re doing to the lay public. If for no other reason, because in our country, my country and most countries, the major financial supporter of research is the public through government funds, and they’re entitled to know what’s going on, what are scientist doing with the money. And I think it gives people an appreciation for the science. No better example than the vaccines, which seem to sprout from nowhere in the course of months due to the work of untold numbers of scientists. So I think it’s very important for scientists to communicate their work as clearly and as often as they can. But on the other side, there’s a responsibility on the part of journalists, which I must say is shared by the scientists to talk straight and to not exaggerate or hype findings. Over and over again in my long career. I have seen potentially important findings – big emphasis on the word potentially important findings portrayed as breakthroughs, which would have an immediate impact on therapeutics. And 25 or thirty years later, we’re not much further along. From the point of view of a journalist, it’s a much better story to say we’ve got a breakthrough than we’ve got some small incremental change, which might have an effect 30 years downrange. And so stories get blown up. That happened to me earlier in my career a few times where findings which I thought I had presented in a very measured and circumspect way and somehow, when they appeared in the press, they were being hyped in a way that I thought was inaccurate. And so over the years, I became very cautious about talking to the press. And I have to say at some points in my career, I was actually reluctant to talk to the press. I just didn’t want my findings being warped or hyped in ways that would then disappoint people when a year later, we didn’t have a cure for this or that or the other thing.
Natalie von der Lehr: And as we were talking about earlier, also to inform politicians and to policymakers to make the right decisions, especially in this pandemic times, which we live through now.
Robert Lefkowitz: And you know, again, as we were talking earlier, the politicization of these vaccines in the United States is just a terrible thing because you have some politicians basically encouraging these vaccine holdouts or raising questions about the safety or the processes that were used to develop these vaccines for political purposes. This is something I never would have imagined, even though I have been skeptical of some politicians motivations. But the extent to which it has been politicized in our country is something, as I say, that even I never would have imagined.
Natalie von der Lehr: So in terms of science communication, what would your advice be to other scientists? How do you do it? How do you bring your science out there?
Robert Lefkowitz: I think the key is to, on the one hand, not be shy when you have the opportunity to talk about your science. Take the time to be interviewed and talk about it, but then use every ounce of will that you’ve got to make sure you don’t hype your findings. And when the interviewers try to rope you in to making exorbitant and unjustified claims, resist, don’t do it. In fact, go to the other direction, say: ”Look, I just want to tell you this is not going to be a cure for cancer in the next couple of years, but it is an incremental step”, you know this kind of a thing. I think they’ve got to take that very, very seriously. I’ll tell you a funny story, because as I say that’s what I do, about how I got into trouble with some journalists. This was back in the 80s, I think maybe it was the 90s. No it’s the 90s. And they were having a convocation or a meeting of some science journalists at Duke. And so I was pressed into service along with several of my colleagues to just give a talk about my research. So when I finished, it became clear by the kind of tepid response in terms of not many questions, that they didn’t find it all that interesting. But one journalist said, Well, that’s all very interesting, Dr. Lefkowitz, are there any other developments going on in the field outside your lab, which might be of interest to us? Well, a very what I thought interesting paper had just been published in Nature, a very prestigious journal, in which a group from Belgium published the unexpected finding that some of these receptors G protein coupled receptors, which had just a year or two before, had been discovered to be olfactory receptors in the nose, that the very same receptors had been discovered in human sperm. And they were hypothesizing that these receptors might essentially be how the sperm smell the egg, if you will, that there might be certain chemo attracting substances that an ovum might secrete that would lead the sperm to come find them. So I mentioned that. Well, the AP published a story on that which unfortunately, they didn’t ask me to clear in which they attributed the work to me. I had nothing to do with the work, it was done by a colleague of mine that I know very well. I wrote him an apologetic note. But it got a lot of press. You know, my kids were calling me ”Dad. We didn’t know you were working on this”. I mean, the implication which the journalist was all over was that this could form the basis for a new type of male oral contraceptive where the man would just on regular basis would take a pill, which would be an antagonist or like a blocker for these receptors. And you know, the only side effect that might be a little alteration in your sense of smell or whatever. Well, the story just wouldn’t die, and it became a question on – have you ever heard of an American television show called Jeopardy?
Natalie von der Lehr: We have it here as well.
Robert Lefkowitz: OK, so a few years later, my Uncle Henry, who was 90 at the time, called me up all excited from New York. I won’t try to imitate his Yiddish accent, but he said, ”Bobby, I’m so proud of you”. I said, ”What’s the matter, uncle Henry?” He was a huge jeopardy fan. He says, ”You were just a question on Jeopardy”. I said, ”What are you talking about?” So it was hard to get the story out of him. Subsequently, years later, I was able to find it on the internet. It was science news for $200, it said. This is the sense by which sperm senses the egg, and you were supposed to say, ”what is smell?” So that’s what got an Uncle Henry all excited. And he said to me, ”Bobby”, he says, ”I’m so proud of you. When you go to Scotland, I’m going with you.” I said, ”Scotland, Uncle Henry, why would I go to Scotland?” He said, ”You know, when you get a big prize”. ”Oh, I said, you mean Stockholm” He said ”Stockholm, Scotland. What’s the difference?”
Natalie von der Lehr: Thanks to Robert Lefkowitz for joining the podcast of Curie. Did you know that Robert Lefkowitz has mentored more than 200 PhD students, postdocs and fellows? You can read more about his thoughts on mentorship in a written article in Curie Visit our website, tidningencurie.se, to read more. There you can also find other articles, blogs and opinion pieces about the world of research. If you like this episode, please consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues. This podcast is available on SoundCloud, iTunes, Acast and Spotify and most podcast apps. My name is Natalie von der Lehr, and I would like to thank you for listening.