November 8, 2013 6:24 pm

US biologist Randy Schekman on being a Nobel Prize winner

How a 2am phone call changed the life of the man responsible for a series of breakthroughs in molecular biology
Randy Schekman, who became a Nobel Prize winner this year©Justin Kaneps

Randy Schekman, who became a Nobel Prize winner this year

For more than a decade, every time October came around, Professor Randy Schekman would be assured by his fellow scientists and colleagues that this would be his year for a Nobel Prize.

Since he began work on yeast genetics in the 1970s Schekman has made a series of world-changing breakthroughs in the field of molecular biology. His latest discoveries offer insights into how diseases progress and a new understanding about cell physiology, with applications in the treatment of diabetes, among other conditions.

“The night before the Nobel announcement every year I’ve gone to bed feeling quite anxious,” says Schekman, at his home across the bay from San Francisco. “I was optimistic, and also I knew it might never happen.” Finally, his time came. Just before 2am on October 7 this year, still half-asleep, he heard the telephone ring.

“My wife, Nancy, answered the phone and said, ‘It’s a Swedish accent’,” he says. “I heard a measured Swedish voice, a man I’d met recently at a science event, so I knew it was the real thing . . . He told me that I’d been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for my research over the last 30 years. I felt giddy. I said ‘Oh, God’ several times. I hugged my wife and we danced around the room.”

Schekman has been professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1976. He won this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his role in revealing the machinery that regulates the transport and secretion of proteins in human cells. He shares the prize with James E Rothman of Yale University and Thomas C Südhof of Stanford University.

Two weeks have passed since the phone call, and Schekman, relaxing in his sitting room – a space lined with several mementos from his work and travels – admits he is still taking it all in.

The Schekmans’ three-storey 1940s house, where the family has lived since 1977, is a quiet haven built on a hillside in El Cerrito with views through trees on to the hazy bay. For Schekman, the home offers welcome respite from his busy research and teaching schedule.

Outside, the sheltered landscape around the house glows with the bronzed leaves of three Smoke Tree specimens, and the vivid red-and-yellow foliage of a Japanese maple tree, its colours intensified by the California light. “We are above the fog line, so it is clear most of the year,” says Schekman. “We added a deck out the back and it’s nice for reading the paper in the morning.”

Inside, the rooms are comfortable and family-orientated. Inherited arts and crafts furniture, mica-shaded lamps and Oriental carpets decorate the sitting room.

The garden with raised decking area©Justin Kaneps

The garden with raised decking area

There are also several notable paintings on display. Hanging above a piano (silent now, but formerly used by the couple’s two grown-up children) is a Renaissance-style landscape by the Mill Valley artist Millicent Tomkins, and in the nearby dining room – a space dominated by an oak table – is an inherited pair of landscape paintings by the late scientist, Efraim Racker.

However, for the practical professor, the home’s interior decor is less important to him than the fact the house is only a 20-minute drive from his lab and office.

Schekman, 64, makes it clear he has no plans to retire yet. “I got into science because I thought that with inspiration and hard work I could figure out how life works,” he says. “The idea that I could push the envelope using dedication and research and endless curiosity has propelled me in my life’s work.”

Schekman grew up in Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles, and he attended high school in Anaheim. “I took the bus and in the 1960s Orange County, now so developed, was all orange groves and farmland – very idyllic.”

He was science-mad from an early age. “Every year, from the age of 12 I got involved in science fairs, won prizes, and that motivated me to go into science,” he says.

“Everything I did in high school was focused on microbiology, looking at things like algae under a microscope for hours on end. When I was 13, I saved up $100 to buy a good used microscope. I was obsessed with microorganisms.”

The kitchen©Justin Kaneps

The kitchen

The subject of public education has interested Schekman throughout his career. He admits that he and his wife were drawn to their current house because of the area’s low property taxes but he has mixed feelings about the impact of these taxes today on local education establishments.

“We bought the house before Prop. 13, which proposed lowering property taxes, because the property prices and taxes in Berkeley were too high for the income we had in 1976,” says Schekman. “We now pay too little in property taxes. I hate what the reduction in tax revenue has done to school budgets. It has ruined our local school district.”

When asked how the Nobel Prize money, and the exposure the award inevitably brings, will impact on his career, Schekman says: “This is it for me, a life of science.” He has already said he will donate his share of the prize money, $400,000, to create an endowment for the Esther and Wendy Schekman Chair in Basic Cancer Biology at UC Berkeley. Schekman’s mother and sister, for whom the post is named, both died of cancer.

Sink area in the kitchen©Justin Kaneps

Sink area in the kitchen

Two years ago, Schekman, with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Society founded eLife (elifesciences.org), an open-access online journal covering all of the life sciences. For Schekman, the free dissemination of scientific information is a key issue.

“It is very important that scientific literature of value is openly available, and that the process of selection and publication is open and transparent,” he says. “At eLife, all decisions on the review and publication of papers are made by active scientists chosen by my team. We feel that existing closed processes of paper selection are flawed. Our reviews of papers are conducted online among referees who virtually face each other.”

Getting a paper published is crucial to a scientist’s recognition, future career, funding and for furthering ideas, says Schekman, whose eLife website has already published more than 150 scientific papers this year.

“I’ve studied at public [state] schools my whole life, since I was five, except for a brief period when I was teaching at Stanford,” says Schekman, once again returning to the issue of education. “I owe an enormous debt to public schools, and I will use the platform offered by the Nobel to advocate for the value of public education.”

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Favourite thing

'The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA', (1968) by James D Watson©Justin Kaneps

Schekman chooses a book as his favourite object – The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, (1968) by James D Watson. “This account has always been such an inspiration. Francis Crick and James Watson identified the structure of DNA, the molecule of life. They revolutionised biochemistry against all odds and heavy competition, and won a Nobel Prize,” says Schekman. “I was so impressed that Watson was only 24, a young scientist working to make his mark. This is what science can aspire to. “It reinforced my aspiration to be an experimental scientist. It was an inspiration at the time, though not much since then because I have seen Watson in action on many occasions and find him to be overly-opinionated.”

The house has views through the trees of San Francisco Bay©Justin Kaneps

The house has views through the trees of San Francisco Bay

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