Friday, October 7, 2016

2016's Nobel Prize for Medicine

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi, the Japanese scientist who used a yeast model to study and extensively characterize autophagy, the process by which cells recycle and degrade damaged components (here's a simple explanation of what autophagy is, and why it's important).

An earlier interview with Ohsumi, published in the Journal of Cell Biology, offers some interesting insights into both the man himself as well as his somewhat unusual path to success. It's disarming to hear a Nobel Laureate admit that his Ph.D. thesis did not yield good results, and the U.S. post-doc that became a cornerstone of his professional career was a position he took up only because he did not find any good openings in his native Japan. Even after his return to Japan and establishing his own laboratory, he says, "So, I had a little bit of success, and eventually I finally got my own laboratory. But by that time I was 43 years old. I would not say I had a very successful career up to that point; I had many difficulties, but I mostly caused them myself."

The rest of the interview covers more details of the painstaking work that Ohsumi and his colleagues carried out to characterize the molecular mechanisms that underlie autophagy. At the end, he advises young scientists to be risk takers and venture into new areas of research even if they are less popular, a strategy that he followed because, as he puts it, "I am not very competitive". That's certainly a refreshing viewpoint. It's easy to think that the kind of research that wins a Nobel should be a series of splashy scientific discoveries, making headlines around the world. Rather, Ohsumi's story is testament to the fact that excellent science is often the fruit of patience, perseverance and time.

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