My dad, Ardem Patapoutian, is a professor at Scripps Research who studies the biological process known as mechanotransduction, or how our bodies sense touch. On October 4 this fall, my family got a big surprise. On this day, he was named the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with Dr. David Julius of UCSF. On November 3, he gave a lecture at my school, Bishop’s in La Jolla. I volunteered to introduce him to the crowd, and below are my slightly adapted remarks from the event.
Hello everyone and thank you for coming to tonight’s Schaffer Family Lecture on Science. I am Luca Patapoutian, a senior here at Bishop’s, and it is my pleasure to introduce the recent Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine, and my dad, Ardem Patapoutian. I’d like to use this introduction to go through our family’s experience over the last month. It has been a very surreal time, and I didn’t really know what to expect going in, so let’s discuss some of the myths that surround the prize: MythBusters, Nobel edition.
Myth #1: the 2am phone call. The Prize is awarded by the Karolinska Institute at 4 pm local time in Sweden. So starting at 1am here, we were called four times, none of which we received (thanks, Do not Disturb). It wasn’t until they reached my 94-year old grandpa’s landline that we were actually alerted to the news just before 2:30am. So yes, this myth is confirmed.
Myth #2: Is he a celebrity now? My dad now has over 18k Twitter followers (you can follow him @ardemp), which in science is a fairly decent number. He was in the legendary news site The Onion and the esteemed Bishop’s publication The Daily Urinal. But as Jimmy Kimmel showed (bit.ly/Luca-link), most Americans will find it easier to name five Starbucks drinks than a single Nobel laureate. Even I don’t remember who won it last year, so I think that is typical in our country. So yes, there are the 15 minutes of fame in some circles, but overall, most laureates don’t become household names. Celebrity Myth: let’s call it plausible.
Last one: now, our sincere thanks to everyone offering my family their congratulations, but the most common phrase we hear is “What a great achievement!“ I want to make the point that the Nobel isn’t actually the prize. We never talked about it or even really wanted to think about it. We were not in the Nobel waiting room, so to speak. For my dad, the goal was and always will be to do great science. Getting recognized for that is fantastic but shouldn’t change anything. So for now, for us at least, that myth is busted.
Now as part of my dad’s ego management team, I invite you to give a small round of applause for his talk on the true prize, the molecules that are responsible for our sense of touch!
Postscript: Nobel Week is December 6-10 this year, with the celebrations in Stockholm postponed one more year due to COVID-19. Instead my dad recorded his Nobel lecture at Scripps, and it will be posted at NobelPrize.org, where you can also find background on his and other laureates’ research.