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New Nobel Laureate: No Surprise to His UCLA Professors

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By Mary Daily

Published Oct 9, 2013 8:00 AM


Randy Schekman ‘71 is remembered as “a most incredible undergraduate."

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Photo by: Hadar Goren

For more than 40 years, UCLA emeritus professor Dan Ray has been looking for another undergraduate like Randy Schekman’71. Now Schekman, professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, has just become the seventh UCLA alumnus to win a Nobel Prize, and the first to win in physiology or medicine.

Hear What Randy Schekman
Has to Say

Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman in conversation with Stuart Wolpert on his time at UCLA, the importance of public education and how he intends to use the prize money.

Schekman, along with James E. Rothman of Yale and Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford, won for solving the mystery of how the cell organizes its transport system. Disturbances to this system—according to the 50-member Nobel Assembly’s statement—contribute to “conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes, and immunological disorders."

When he entered UCLA, Schekman chose pre-med as his major, but that changed when he found himself, as a freshman, enrolled in an honors class taught by Willard Libby, the inventor of carbon-14 dating and a Nobel Prize winner himself. Libby assigned Schekman to the lab of molecular biologist Michael Conrad.

"The first thing he had me do was read the then-first edition of a book by James Watson called Molecular Biology of the Gene, which really opened my eyes," Schekman recalls. "I remember reading it in my leisure time like it was the Bible." From then on, he was hooked on basic science. Learning “that one could actually plumb the depths of nature with intellect and intuition and work was a revelation."

It was in his sophomore year that Schekman joined Ray’s lab, and the professor recognized him as "a most incredible undergraduate" who knew more about molecular biology than entering graduate students. “He was so enthusiastic about research, and it really was infectious.

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"He told me that as a high school student, he had set up a lab in his garage, but his mother got upset when she found bottles of blood in the refrigerator," Ray remembers.

After graduation from UCLA in 1971, with an independent field of concentration in molecular biology, Schekman pursued graduate work with Stanford biochemist Arthur Kornberg, who had won a Nobel Prize in 1959 for identifying a key enzyme in DNA synthesis.

In 1976, doctorate in hand, Schekman joined the UC Berkeley faculty and decided to study yeast to determine how vesicles containing proteins move inside and outside the cell.

"Like many pioneers in the field, he was brave enough to take on a project in a new area of study as a young assistant professor," says Gregory Payne, a UCLA professor of biological chemistry who trained in Schekman's lab as a postdoctoral scholar. "His lab was growing, but he still was able to mentor each of us and give us his attention."

Over the years, Schekman has received many accolades for his contributions to science. "He has shown that he has a great sense of responsibility to the field," Payne says. "He's a terrific citizen of the field of science in general and cell biology in particular.”

A Day in the Life

Follow Nobel laureate Randy Schekman through a day celebrating his momentous achievement.

When Schekman received the momentous call from Stockholm telling him he had won the Nobel, it was 1:30 a.m. in California. The phone rang, waking him and his wife. “There it is!” she said.

After he hung up, the two of them “danced around” and he said again and again, “Oh my God, Oh my God!” Then he called his 86-year-old father, “who had been hoping for this for many years.”

At UC Berkeley, it’s traditional for Nobel laureates to be awarded free parking passes for life. That may be the most enviable perk of all.

Watch a video interview with Schekman when he won the Lasker Award in 2002, in which he discusses his education at UCLA.

This story is based on an article in UCLA Today. To view the original full-length article, visit http://ucla.in/19xTykI

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