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A lesson from a Nobel laureate

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


On the afternoon of Monday, October 7, two first-year medical students waited in a classroom on the fourth floor of the Sterling Hall of Medicine for the arrival of James E. Rothman, Ph.D., chair of cell biology. Classmates trickled into the room as John Andrews and Alanna Kaplan stood at a lectern and prepared to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on Rothman’s seminal 1993 paper in Nature on vesicle fusion. The two students admitted to being nervous.

Earlier that day Rothman, the Fergus F. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences, learned that he would share in the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for the research described in that 1993 paper. And he would be in the classroom to hear the students’ presentation.

“My first instinct was to get on my computer and start editing slides,” said Andrews, recalling his reaction when he heard the Nobel news in an e-mail.

“I was in shock,” said Kaplan, who learned about the Nobel while eating breakfast in her kitchen. “It was such an interesting coincidence. There was definitely an air of excitement throughout the entire day.”

Sitting on the side of the room was Fred Gorelick, M.D., professor of internal medicine (digestive diseases) and of cell biology, and one of the course instructors. Faculty for the course, Molecular and Cellular Basis for Disease, select topics for discussion, and students are asked to sign up to present on those that interest them. Andrews and Kaplan were the first to choose Rothman’s paper for their presentation. Because of the importance of Rothman’s research in understanding the nervous system, they felt that it fit in with their own interests—Kaplan, who’s in the M.D./Ph.D. program, is interested in neuroscience, and Andrews is interested in neuroscience and neurology.

Theirs would be the second presentation in the course and would follow a previous discussion of work by James Jamieson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology, on how cells make proteins and how proteins travel through the cells. (Jamieson worked with George Palade, M.D., who went on to win a Nobel Prize for this work in 1974.) Rothman’s work on how vesicles transport cargo through the cells was a logical next step. About a week before their presentation, and after reading Rothman’s paper and relevant review articles, Kaplan and Andrews spent 90 minutes with Rothman in his office. To their surprise, the department chair spent as much time asking about their interests as discussing his own research.

The day of the presentation, with the entire medical school—indeed, all of Yale—buzzing about the Nobel, Rothman entered the classroom on the fourth floor of the Sterling Hall of Medicine unable to resist, he joked, the chance to “torture” Andrews and Kaplan with his presence.

“He set the tone for the talk,” Kaplan said. “He’s so warm and friendly.”

Their presentation, she and Andrews said, went beyond a discussion of Rothman’s findings.

“Everyone comes into class having read the paper, but we have a unique perspective because we were able to speak with Dr. Rothman about how he came up with his ideas and what his thought process was,” Kaplan said. “When you see someone’s thought process, that’s a whole different kind of education,” Andrews said.

At one point in the presentation, Andrews turned to Rothman to confirm a point about his research.

“You’re doing great,” Rothman said.