Brandeis professors, once ‘mocked’ for research, win Nobel Prize for Medicine
WALTHAM — It’s the type of wake-up call that can alarm even a sleep scientist.
Before sunrise Monday, Michael Rosbash, a Brandeis University biology professor who has spent decades studying the body’s internal clock, received a phone call from Sweden with the biggest news of his career:
He was part of a trio that had won the Nobel Prize — a first for Brandeis.
The call “destroyed my circadian rhythm,” joked Rosbash, 73.
He initially worried that it was a prank call. “Then it slowly dawned on me when I was dragged out of my stupor and out of my slumber that it was probably true,” he said.
Rosbash — along with his longtime research partner and retired Brandeis professor Jeffrey C. Hall and Rockefeller University professor Michael W. Young — were honored for their discovery that every living thing relies on circadian rhythms, which in humans control the body’s critical functions, influencing sleep, behavior, hormone levels, body temperature, and metabolism.
They won the Nobel in physiology or medicine. Their foundational research, which grew out of a study of fruit flies, could have far-reaching implications for work on Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and other health problems.
Hall was also surprised to learn that they had won.
“I didn’t believe it,” said Hall, 72. “I thought it may be a prank.”
Hall said their work was initially criticized by some, but that did not deter them. “The approach we were taking was publicly mocked by other researchers,” said Hall. “We just kept on plugging away. We just kept going.”
Hall, who also taught at the University of Maine, now lives in rural Cambridge, Maine, a town 60 miles west of Bangor with a population of 462.
He was unable to make it back to Brandeis for the impromptu party on Monday. Reached by telephone, Hall said that he misses university life but is content spending time with his dogs.
What did Hall plan to do to celebrate?
“Nothing,” said Hall. “There’s nothing to do here.”
Rosbash, Hall, and Young were each awarded a one-third share of the $1.1 million prize.
The prize set off a celebration at Brandeis, an institution founded after World War II. With nearly 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students today, it is often overshadowed by the region’s other research powerhouses, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston University.
On Monday, the giddy staff uncorked bottles of champagne, university leaders cracked jokes about the circadian rhythm in their speeches, and hundreds of students and faculty squeezed into a library hall to toast the win.
“It’s such a victory for basic science and a small university,” said Mara Rue, 25, a Brandeis graduate student. “These prizes usually go to the Harvards, MITs, and the big state universities. I was very excited.”
Brandeis has its share of MacArthur Fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners. and members of the National Academy of Sciences, but the school’s officials acknowledged that the first Nobel prize adds luster to the Waltham university’s reputation.
At Harvard, Nobel Prizes are far more common — there have been 49 winners associated with the Ivy League school.
Brandeis is known for its robust research in academic circles but less so among potential students and older alumni, said Ron Liebowitz, the university’s president.
“This highlights the very strong science program here,” Liebowitz said. “Outside, this win will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows.”
Leibowitz said he hopes the recognition that Brandeis professors are conducting ground-breaking research will encourage alumni to give and attract the attention of potential big-money donors.
The university has an $867 million endowment, which is small compared to what other research schools in the area have.
Endowment funds can supplement federal research funding and help universities pay for expensive equipment and overhead costs.
After the Great Recession severely dented its endowment in 2009, along with those of other colleges, Brandeis considered selling its trove of seminal, post-war paintings housed in the university’s Rose Art Museum. The idea drew criticism from the art world — and a lawsuit from the museum’s supporters.
The school settled the lawsuit in 2011 and put in writing that it would not sell any prized museum pieces.
The university’s endowment has since rebounded. Brandeis has also received nearly $380 million, primarily in research grants, from the federal government in the past decade.
That federal research funding, along with the collaborative environment at Brandeis, has been crucial to Rosbash’s career and work, he said.
Working at a small university, professors at Brandeis are more likely to know each other and to work together on projects, said Rosbash, who has spent more than 40 years teaching at the school.
His work with Hall grew out of pickup basketball games at least two decades ago, he said.
The two scientists would cool down in the locker room and gab about their work. Rosbash shared insights about DNA and RNA and Hall about his study of fruit fly behavior.
“We played a lot of basketball,” Rosbash said. “The meeting point was the gym. . . . We’ve gone from the locker room to Stockholm.”
On Monday, the Nobel citation cited scientific papers published between 1984 and 1992 by Hall and Rosbash and papers published by Young in 1994 and 1998.
“Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,’’ the Nobel committee said in justifying the selection.
“Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.”
Rosbash continues to conduct research in his lab and will teach courses next spring, he said.
Brandeis recently tapped another professor to take on molecular biology classes, which Rosbash has been teaching for years. That means the Nobel Prize winner will for the first time in his career get the opportunity to teach a course on circadian rhythms and sleep.
Students are unlikely to doze off in that class.