From Yale to llamas to the Nobel Prize

May 7, 2015

More than 100 students presented posters of their research this year. Topics ranged from mechanisms of trophoblast responses to the reporting of results in high-impact journals. Credit: Terry Dagradi.

Dean Robert Alpern: 333 Cedar Street

333 Cedar Street is a letter from Dean Robert J. Alpern, MD, Ensign Professor of Medicine, on topics of interest to the Yale School of Medicine community. Write to Dean Alpern at

An alumnus returns to the School of Medicine for Student Research Day and talks about the research that led to a Nobel Prize.

As this academic year draws to a close, I want to share with you the outstanding research presented on our annual Student Research Day on May 5. Along with our Farr lecturer, Brian Kobilka, I was deeply impressed by the sophisticated research of our medical students. Brian, a member of the School of Medicine’s Class of 1981, said that such high-level investigation would have seemed impossible when he was a student here. When he presented his thesis research in 1981, Brian said, there were no poster presentations, no lectures, and students didn’t know what their classmates were working on. And, he joked, he might have been one of the first to write his thesis on a computer. Indeed, we have come a long way. Throughout the day, I saw poster presentations and heard research summaries that covered a vast array of topics, from novel mechanisms of trophoblast responses to the reporting of results in and high-impact journals. As always, it is a pleasure to be a part of this annual tradition and opportunity to showcase what our future leaders in medicine achieve on our campus.

Farr lecturer and Nobel laureate Brian Kobilka posed with the authors of award-winning theses this year. From left: Kobilka, Sebastian Urday, Anna Duncan, Stefan Gysler, Emily Bucholz, and Daniel Bohl. Credit: Terry Dagradi.

During his elegant lecture, “Structural insights into G protein-coupled receptor signaling,” Brian Kobilka described the tumultuous journey that he and his colleagues endured to obtain crystallographic images of the protein. Who knew that a llama would provide a much-needed breakthrough? Brian’s Belgian colleague, Jan Steyaert of Free University, Brussels, suggested using antibodies from a llama to obtain a stable crystal, a trick that eventually worked. For this research, which helped elucidate how these proteins function, Brian shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with his postdoctoral mentor, Robert J. Lefkowitz of Duke University, in 2012.

The spirit of Student Research Day will be present on May 18 at the School of Medicine Commencement. On that day, we will confer the annual Louis H. Nahum Prize on a member of the graduating class to recognize the excellence of his or her research thesis. Brian Kobilka received this prize in 1981. While I know many in the field consider the Lasker Award to be a precursor to the Nobel Prize, I would like to propose a new predictor: Yale’s Nahum Prize.