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Three researchers on Nobel inspiration

Most researchers will never come close to winning a Nobel Prize. But some are fortunate enough to work with one of the 200 or so living Nobel legends of the research world. We have met with three of them.

Eric Kandel, Professor at Columbia University

Conducts research into: Learning and memory

Nobel Prize: In 2000 (together with Paul Greengard and Arvid Carlsson) for their discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system – more specifically, the molecular processes involved in memory formation.

Philippe Melas, Postdoc, Columbia University, tied to the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet

Conducts research into: Molecular changes in the brain in cannabis use and treatment of addiction.

Link to Nobel laureate: Currently completing his postdoc at the laboratory of Eric Kandel.

Nobela laureate Eric Kandel togehter with Philippe Melas. Credit: Brent Murray.
Nobela laureate Eric Kandel togehter with Philippe Melas. Credit: Brent Murray.

“He always supports me”

“The first time I saw Eric Kandel was during my studies at Karolinska Institutet. He was giving a lecture, and I thought he was both skilful and charming – after all, he’s nearing ninety and has more energy than most. At the time, I didn’t have the guts to go up to him and introduce myself, and I couldn’t have imagined that I would be working with him just a few years later. But after completing my thesis on neurogenetics in 2012, his lab at Columbia University came up as a good alternative for my postdoc, so I sent an e-mail and got an interview. Since then, I have been working closely with Eric and also with his wife Denise Kandel, who is also a professor at Columbia. Every day, I marvel at their energy.

The lab is an intellectually stimulating environment, and the researchers are truly driven. Every Tuesday we have a lab presentation, and at first the idea of presenting my research to a Nobel laureate was, honestly, terrifying. Eric is meticulous, and you have to be prepared to take criticism. He might tell you that an experiment you have really put your heart and soul into is no good – and some people have a hard time hearing that. If I come up with a new idea, he might also say that he doesn’t think it will work, but that he thinks I should still try it, and that he will support me. Eric often makes parallels to how people didn’t believe in his ideas of using sea slugs in his research on memory formation, something that eventually led to a Nobel Prize. He is an inspiration, and I hope that I will still want to come into the lab every day when I’m 89 years old too.”

Mats Rudling, Professor at the Department of Medicine, Karolinska Institutet

Conducts research into: Regulation of blood cholesterol.

Link to Nobel laureate: Completed his postdoc at the laboratory of Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein in 1988–1990. They received the Nobel Prize in 1985 for their groundbreaking discoveries concerning the regulation of cholesterol metabolism.

Mats Rudling, credit: Christopher Hunt.
Mats Rudling, credit: Christopher Hunt.

“An inspiring time”

“The first time I met Mike Brown and Joe Goldstein was in 1982. Coming home from a convention in the United States, me and a few colleagues went to Dallas, where we were given a full-day tour of their lab. At the time, I was studying the regulation of the LDL receptor that Brown and Goldstein had discovered. They immediately understood what we were saying, and we were barraged with questions. Even before I completed my thesis in 1986, I had thoughts of trying to spend time with them after finishing my PhD. The dream finally came true, when my funding applications were suddenly granted. Six months before leaving, my wife and I had twins, which turned things upside down to say the least. But we went, and it was a fun time that we have never regretted.

Mike and Joe were incredibly well versed in the details of the different methods used by their associates. On the other hand, they never informed anyone when they left the building. Instead, their secretary would turn up five minutes before a meeting to tell you it was cancelled.

The fact that Mike and Joe have carried out so much successful work together is in my opinion due to their different personalities. Joe is the more eccentric type, while Mike is better at seeing the bigger picture. It’s a good combination – not least in science. I have learned a lot from them, for example that it is good to know how to collaborate without wasting time arguing about the details. I am myself involved in a close collaboration with my colleague Bo Angelin. We don’t aspire to a Nobel Prize; the most important thing is that the work is fun.”

Giedre Grigelioniene, Researcher at the Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Karolinska Institutet

Conducts research into: Congenital skeletal and connective tissue diseases.

Link to Nobel laureate: Recently published a scientific article together with Phillip A Sharp, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 (together with Richard J. Roberts) for his discovery of introns in eukaryotic DNA.

Giedre Grigelioniene, credit: Christopher Hunt.
Giedre Grigelioniene, credit: Christopher Hunt.

“The collaboration has made me do research differently”

“I am a peripheral researcher in Phillip A Sharp’s network. But the connection still means a lot to me; it has opened doors and taken me down new research paths. It all started when I found a new diagnosis and a new mechanism behind a rare skeletal disease. The disease, which I discovered in a Swedish family, has not been previously described in literature. After my discovery, I went to the United States and worked at Harvard University. My group leader felt that the disease mechanism was so unique that he contacted Sharp to inquire about a collaboration with his lab at MIT. Sharp thought the discovery was very interesting and became curious to find out if the mechanism could also apply to cancer. I was completely blown away when I heard what he was thinking and the potential he saw in the first finding.

Since then, I have been working closely with his associate Hiroshi Suzuki who I was set up with. Sharp is very humble; he lets his associates handle most things while he stands aside and provides support. Sharp and I only correspond via e-mail, often with me being cc’d in. There is a strong hierarchy in the United States.

Proving new mechanisms is tricky, but Sharp has been encouraging us and tells us that we will make a difference. When you hear that from him, you know that it’s good. And it turned out that the mechanism also applies to cancer! Thanks to the great capacity of his lab, a little more than a year’s work has resulted in a finished publication and a manuscript. Even though I have only met Sharp in person once, I will be doing research differently now, thanks to this collaboration with his lab.”

Told to: Maja Lundbäck. First published in Medicinsk Vetenskap nr 4 2018