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Brandeis celebrates professors’ Nobel Prize

The announcement via live video from Stockholm about the prize for research on circadian rhythms drew cheers from the crowd assembled at the Usdan Student Center at Brandeis University on Sunday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WALTHAM — Brandeis University is about 3,750 miles and an ocean away from Stockholm, but that distance didn’t dim the excitement of Sunday’s Nobel Prize presentation for the students, faculty, and staff who gathered for a watch party in the Usdan Student Center.

“This is definitely just the coolest thing ever. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Jacqie Wycoff, a 19-year-old freshman from Jackson, N.J.

Wycoff said she doesn’t know Brandeis biology professor Michael Rosbash, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine jointly with Jeffrey C. Hall, a retired Brandeis professor, and Michael W. Young, a professor at Rockefeller University in New York, for their research on circadian rhythms, the internal clocks that guide animals and plants.


But Wycoff was awed by the honor and its significance for the university.

“To see one of our professors get such a distinguished award is just amazing to me,” she said. “To know that Brandeis fosters this kind of experimenting and research is really incredible.”

Seated beside Wycoff at a large round table in the Levin Ballroom, freshman Aaron Pins, 18, said he had met Rosbash once — and awkwardly.

“I was running late to class and I turned a corner, and he turned a corner at the same time, and I . . . bumped into him,” said Pins, who is from Holden. “It was just a really surreal experience to bump into a Nobel Prize laureate in the hallway. Not a lot of people can say they’ve done that.”

Pins said Rosbash was “really gracious” about the collision.

In addition to Rosbash and Hall, who lives in Maine, MIT professor emeritus Rainer Weiss, of Newton, was part of a team presented the Nobel in physics for creating the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which helped detect gravitational waves in space.

In a brief speech at the awards banquet, Robash expressed criticism of the political climate in the United States.


‘‘We benefited from an enlightened period in the postwar United States. Our National Institutes of Health have enthusiastically and generously supported basic research . . . [but] the current climate in the US is a warning that continued support cannot be taken for granted,’’ he said.

The 2018 federal budget proposed by President Trump calls for cutting science funding by billions of dollars,

Robash also said America’s pluralistic society, in which he and his fellow prize recipients were raised after World War II, is in danger. ‘‘Immigrants and foreigners have always been an indispensable part of our country, including its great record in scientific research,’’ he said.

Rosbash’s selection for the prize was especially exciting for many at Brandeis because he is the first professor to be presented a Nobel while still teaching at the university.

The novelist Saul Bellow was a visiting professor of English at Brandeis after winning the Nobel in literature in 1976. John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematician who was the subject of the biography “A Beautiful Mind,” taught at Brandeis briefly in the 1960s and was given the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1994.

Rosbash’s collaboration with Hall grew out of an unlikely connection: They began playing pickup basketball games at lunchtime after both came to teach at Brandeis in 1974, said Ira Jackson, Brandeis’s senior vice president for communications and external relations.

Rosbash and Hall “got to know one another, and in the process discovered that they had a mutual interest in trying to figure out the secret of circadian rhythms,” Jackson said.


The scientists pursued their research for years and through many disappointments, he said, before making the discoveries that have earned them such acclaim.

“He and Jeffrey both credit young students like these,” Jackson said, gesturing at the crowd of about 200 young people, “and graduate students, and doctoral students, and post-docs for their success. They’re very humble guys.”

Around the ballroom, students and professors breakfasted on mini-frittatas, fruit salad, and crepes. They clapped along with the audience in Stockholm as they watched the extraordinarily formal ceremony via live video on a large screen, commenting occasionally on the tuxedos or the bejeweled gowns and tiaras.

Near the front sat a group of men and women who work with Rosbash in his laboratory.

Dylan Ma, 28, a postdoctoral student from Shanghai, China, said Rosbash is energetic and guided by his curiosity.

“Now he’s in his 70s, but he still comes in the lab every day,” Ma said. “He loves science. He’s a role model to us. . . . He’s super-famous, and I think it’s kind of an honor to work in his lab. I’m really enjoying the experience.”

Madelen Diaz, 26, is a doctoral student in neuroscience whose duties in the lab include dissecting, beneath a microscope, the brains of the fruit flies Rosbash’s team studies.

“I have horrible eyesight, so it’s not the easiest thing to do,” said Diaz, who is from Miami.


She said that besides being a widely admired scientist, Rosbash is a patient and caring educator.

“He’s everything I wanted in a mentor, in a graduate adviser,” she said. “His door’s always open. I can approach him regarding anything. He’s always excited to know more about us and what we’re up to. . . . He’s very understanding and supportive in essentially everything that I have done and would like to do.”

She said she was thrilled when the prize was announced.

“It was pure excitement,” she said. “For me, it was still somewhat of a dream [before Sunday], but seeing the actual ceremony happening, it’s coming more to reality.”

Michael Rosbash was honored in October at Brandeis after being named a Nobel laureate.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.